Biden Urges Students to Be Engaged Citizens at 1976 Commencement

    President-Elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., a native of Scranton, served as the principal speaker at The University of Scranton’s undergraduate commencement ceremony in 1976.
    November 18, 2020
    “I got the idea of inviting Joe Biden, who just was elected to the U.S. Senate a few years before."- Rev. William J. Byron, S.J., then president of The University of Scranton

    In 1976, then-U.S. Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. told the graduating class at The University of Scranton there was “a crisis in American leadership.”

    President-Elect Biden, set to receive an honorary degree from Scranton that year, stepped in to serve as the principal speaker at the University’s undergraduate commencement when President Gerald Ford was unable to attend.

    bidenbyron.jpgRev. William J. Byron, S.J., then president of The University of Scranton (with then-Senator Biden at left), recalled that he and former Governor William Scranton, a close friend of the University, had made arrangements for then-President Ford to speak at the commencement. Father Byron was aware that Ford’s schedule could change at a moment’s notice, so he wanted to have a back-up plan.

    “I got the idea of inviting Joe Biden, who just was elected to the U.S. Senate a few years before,” Father Byron said of the Scranton native who was elected to the Senate in 1972 at the age of 29.

    “We invited him to come back to Scranton to receive an honorary degree. We would bring his old neighborhood pals together to celebrate his achievement of becoming a senator,” Father Byron said. “When I talked to Biden, I said, ‘By the way, President Ford is going to be the speaker, but in the event that he cannot make it and his plans change, would you be willing to be the speaker?’ Biden said sure, and that, in fact, was the way it happened.”

    The bicentennial year of the United States marked the first presidential election after Watergate and the resignation of President Nixon.

    “I don’t think there has ever been as much doubt in America as there is today,” Biden told the 880 graduates and their families assembled in the Long Center for the 1976 commencement.

    "Those of you who don’t participate . . . should not complain.”- Then-U.S. Senator Joe Biden

    “More than 72 percent of the people in this nation, surveyed in a recent poll, said that they thought America was in trouble and that things would get worse in the next 10 years.”

    Biden encouraged students to participate in America’s political system.

    “Those of you who don’t participate . . . should not complain.”biden2stage.jpg

    In his introduction of then-Senator Biden, Father Byron said he was a Scranton native who “reflects glory on this city,” and that, despite already having a close connection to the city, he hoped that the senator would become even closer.

    “It is our hope that his appearance here today will bind him a little closer to all of us, and that no matter how high he goes he will remember his city and the University of which he has become an honorary alumnus,” said Father Byron in his introduction.

    That was the first-time Father Byron met Biden, whose uncle Edward Blewitt Finnegan graduated from The University of Scranton in 1937.

    “At graduation, we would use the expression ‘Father President.’ Biden got a big kick out of that term. He said that he enjoyed that term a lot better than what they say in Washington, which is ‘Mister President,’” said Father Byron.

    The University’s class of 1976 included the first cohort of women graduates who began at Scranton in 1972 when the University became coed. 

    Receiving honorary degrees at the ceremony along with Senator Biden were Jean O'Hara Lynett, widow of Edward Lynett, the former publisher of the Scranton Times, Dr. Mildred Jefferson, president of the National Right to Life Committee, and Shenandoah native Rev. Walter J. Ciszek, S.J., the Polish-American priest who conducted missionary work in the Soviet Union and who is now being considered for sainthood.

    The University dedicated a building in honor of Father Ciszek in 2005.

    Scroll through the gallery below for more photos from the 1976 graduation.

    • alt placeholderFrom left: Jean O'Hara Lynett; Rev. Walter J. Ciszek, S.J.; then-U.S. Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr.; Rev. William J. Byron, S.J.; and Dr. Mildred Jefferson.
    • alt placeholderFrom left: Rev. Walter J. Ciszek, S.J., and then-U.S. Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr.
    • alt placeholderFr. Byron speaks with then-Senator Joe Biden and Jill Biden.
    • alt placeholderThen-U.S. Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr.
    • alt placeholderBiden with his mother, Catherine (Jean) Biden.
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