Get the latest news from Syracuse delivered straight to your inbox.
Subscribe to our newsletter here.
As he walked to the pool deck, Joe Biden noticed the blonde woman sitting in a lounge chair.
He wasn’t supposed to be there, at the British Colonial Hotel in Nassau, Bahamas. The displaced student had snuck out with two friends on that spring day in 1964, the men wrapping themselves in hotel beach towels and pretending to be guests.
He wanted to talk to the woman by the pool. His friend too. Fred Sears, the band’s impartial friend, suggested that they flip a coin.
In the end, it didn’t matter which way the coin fell. Biden had made up his mind. He walked over and sat down on the edge of the woman’s lounge chair.
“Hi, I’m Joe Biden,” he said.
“Hi Joe,” the blonde replied. “I am Neilia Hunter.” She looked up at him with her green eyes and smiled, her face lit up by the afternoon sun.
“I basically fell in love with a tin mug – at first sight. It was so easy to talk to it,” Biden wrote in his 2007 memoir Promises to Keep.
That day, he learned that Neilia was from Skaneateles, New York, and was a senior at Syracuse University. He learned that she hoped to teach middle school in Syracuse in September. Most importantly, he learned that she was sincere and always said the right thing, even in her awkward moments.
“It was her special touch, the way she made everyone feel good about themselves. No one ever felt smaller around Neilia,” he wrote.
Coming back from their first date later that night, Biden couldn’t help but think Neilia was the one. On the fourth and last day of his trip, he would confess: “You know we’re getting married.
“I think so,” she whispered. “I think so.”
The two were married on August 27, 1966, at St. Mary’s of the Lake Church in Auburn, New York. They later had three children: Beau, Hunter and Naomi.
Nearly 60 years later, Biden holds the highest position in the United States and arguably SU’s most notable alumnus. He no longer needs to sneak into four-star hotels. And a lot of his early success, he said, is tied to meeting Neilia.
Neilia – who inspired others to see their best as a teacher, role model, mother and friend – died in a car accident 50 years ago on December 18, 1972. Those who knew in Syracuse only remember bits and pieces. about her. They remember that she was reserved, naturally beautiful and modest. But time and time again, despite the vagueness that accompanies the passing years, everyone says, more than anything, that she was nice.
The summer before seventh grade, 12-year-old Susan Spooner couldn’t wait to get back to her school, Bellevue Heights. She had received her teaching assignment in the mail. “Oh, boy, are you going to have Neilia Hunter?” said her friend. “She’s beautiful, Sue.”
On the first day of the school year, on a hot summer morning, Spooner sat in the middle of the class and looked up at Mrs. Hunter. She wore brown-rimmed glasses and had her hair pulled back. “When she started talking, she was exactly what my girlfriend had told me: very sweet and lovely personality, and beautiful,” Spooner said.
Neilia was the teacher every student wanted, Spooner said. She fostered a comfortable space in her classroom and she communicated easily with her students. Like them, Nelia had grown up and attended school in central New York.
She spent her childhood along Skaneateles Lake, where her father owned the Hunter Dinerant in Auburn and ran the cafeteria at Auburn Community College. She was the eldest of her siblings, John and Michael.
As a student at Penn Hall Junior College and Preparatory School, a boarding school in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, Nelia held many roles: she was president of the International Relations Club, photo editor for the Penntonian, and student council member, as well as a swimmer and a hockey player.