Her friends gush: “In 30 years, I’ve never heard her say a bad word about anybody,” “She’ll do anything for you.” Like sitting in the hospital all day with her friend’s husband while the friend had breast cancer surgery. Like sliding cash to a bankrupt friend. Like seeing a woman just after the market closed on Christmas Eve, desperately knocking on the sliding door, begging to be let in to buy milk.
“Debbie took the milk out of her bag and gave it to her,” says Cecilia Gallagher, who lived next door to Bob on Kimberly Drive.
Gallagher saw firsthand how Deb’s sweetness rubbed off on Bob. An overwhelmed mom who had to be at work at 6:30 a.m., Gallagher had no place for her eight-year-old daughter to be before school. Deb gave the little girl a key to Bob’s rowhouse; in the morning, the girl would tiptoe in and jump into bed with Deb and Bob.
“They helped me raise my children,” Gallagher says. Bob and Deb never had any kids together. “I would have loved to,” Deb says. But she knew she had to give that up: A congressman was never home.
More than 700 people came to Bob and Deb’s wedding on June 28, 1997, at the Cathedral of the Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul. Planning was a nightmare.
“Where were we going to find a place to hold every public official?” Deb says. “Either we could do nothing, or do it all. We couldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings.” They solved it with two receptions: Everyone under the sun was invited to the service and cocktail party after, at Finnegan’s Wake. Later, they had a private reception, just family and friends.
Deb wasn’t nervous about the wedding, not even the night before, when her 51-year-old fiancé climbed a ladder two stories to her old bedroom window at her parents’ house, a rose between his teeth, singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” But the next day, it hit her.
As her limo pulled up to the church, it was rushed by the press. There were so many reporters crowding the car, the driver- locked the doors.
“They wouldn’t let me out of the car,” she says.
LAST YEAR, WHEN THE PHA SCANDAL FIRST BROKE, Bob didn’t like his wife taking hits in the papers. He’s always kept his family out of the limelight, even when doing the opposite might have helped soften his burly-man image, like when he ran for mayor in 2007 (and lost … by a lot).
Of course, the family’s shyness hadn’t stopped Deb from becoming involved in some fairly public, high-profile positions in the years since she and Bob married. In 1999, she took a job as executive director of Philadelphia Writ Services, a company that serves lawsuit notices and that has a $1 million city contract. A few years later, she took that $10,500 job on the Independence Blue Cross board. She was also appointed in 2000 to the PHA board, ending up in the crosshairs last fall alongside former mayor and board chair John Street, councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, AFL-CIO president Patrick Eiding and public-housing advocate Nellie Reynolds.