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At 88, she crashed a VIP event to meet Joe Biden | We the People

Elaine Peden had written to the vice president about her - successful - efforts to get honorary U.S. citizenship for William Penn.

Elaine Peden, 88, of Frankford, with a copy of the proclamation that certified William and Hannah Penn as honorary citizens of the United States.
Elaine Peden, 88, of Frankford, with a copy of the proclamation that certified William and Hannah Penn as honorary citizens of the United States.Read moreStephanie Farr

When Elaine Peden found out that former Vice President Joe Biden was speaking at the opening of Philadelphia's Museum of the American Revolution in April, she vowed to make it to the ceremony.

Peden, 88, had a bone to pick with Biden. She'd mailed him a package about a month prior and he hadn't written her back yet.

The gall!

So Peden, who is one sassy grandmother, left her Frankford home and got on the El to ask him why. She didn't have an invitation or a ticket. But Peden owned a Frankford bar-turned-disco for 35 years — and getting to a former vice president couldn't be harder work than that.

The package Peden sent to Biden's house — she got his address from his neighbor, a fellow member of the mandolin orchestra she's played in for 50 years — contained newspaper clippings and documents that detailed her campaign to get William and Hannah Penn named honorary citizens of the United States.

In 1984 — after Peden had spent 10 years and $10,000 of her own money — President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation declaring William and Hannah Penn honorary U.S. citizens, a distinction that's only been bestowed upon eight people in history, including Winston Churchill and St. Teresa of Calcutta.

But despite her efforts, Peden wasn't invited to the signing marking the Penns' honorary citizenship.

"I didn't even get a pen," she said, referring to the tradition of presidents giving away pens they use to sign proclamations.

Peden's love affair with William and Hannah Penn began with a visit to the top of City Hall in the 1970s. She noticed the room where people wait for the elevator was in disrepair, so she got schoolchildren to create Penn-related art and decorated the room with it.

Now, those artworks and the more than 400 pieces of Penn memorabilia Peden owns are all in a single room of her house, which she refers to as the Penn museum.

Peden has worked at two real Philly museums — the Betsy Ross House, where she was on staff until the age of 82, and the now-shuttered Pretzel Museum.

"I love dealing with people, and I love telling people where to go besides hell," she said.

What Peden doesn't love: Benjamin Franklin. She feels he gets more love from the city — and history — than Penn, and it upsets her that the Penn statue atop City Hall is often mistaken for Franklin.

"Ben Franklin was a degenerate," she said. "He could publish whatever bull he wanted. Who would stop him?"

As Peden approached the Museum of the American Revolution on opening day, she sweet-talked a police officer who tried to stop her. Then she sweet-talked her way into getting a VIP wristband.

It doesn't hurt that Peden is 88, adorable, and indomitable.

Peden sat quietly as Biden gave "a wonderful speech." When the ceremony ended, several VIPs, including Biden and Ed Rendell, walked up the museum steps for a private tour. Peden followed.

"This woman was standing at the door and she said, 'What party are you with?' and I said, 'Biden's,' and she said 'Go ahead,'" Peden recalled.

She watched the VIP group walk up two flights of steps.

"I didn't want to ask for an elevator because I'd lose them," Peden said. "So I climbed the steps. Thank God I had my cane with me!"

In a dimmed theater, where the group watched a short film about Valley Forge, a federal agent told her: "As soon as those lights go on, make your move," Peden recalled.

And she did, introducing herself to Biden.

"He said 'Oh, my God!' and put his arms around me and said, 'What you did was fabulous!' I said, 'You read it?' and he said, 'I sure did.' " she said.

Before she let Biden go, Peden had another request: She asked him to write her a letter so her friends and family would believe they met. When that letter did not arrive in what Peden felt was a timely manner, she wrote again, reminding him of the request.

Two weeks later, the phone rang. It was Biden. A handwritten note from the former vice president arrived at her door in October.

It was signed: "We are indebted to you. Joe Biden."

A few weeks ago, Peden took a ceramic statute of William Penn with a twist-top hat that reveals a secret flask to the Comcast building and left it with a security guard who promised he would deliver it Comcast senior executive vice president David L. Cohen.

Peden mentioned that she still hasn't received a thank-you card for the gift yet.

We suggest Cohen get on that.

Why Philadelphia?

"Well, it's my birthplace. I was born here, and you should promote from where you come."

What's been a classic Philly moment for you?

"A classic Philly moment was the day I met Vice President Joe Biden. … I crashed a party."

If you had a wish for the city, what would it be?

"More togetherness and really call it the city of brotherly and sisterly love, which it lacks today. We've got to come together in peaceful negotiations."

Know someone in the Philadelphia area whose story deserves to be told — or someone whose story you'd like to know? Send suggestions for We the People profiles to Stephanie Farr at or call her at 215-854-4225. Send tips via Twitter to @FarFarrAway.

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