Saturday, May 4, 2002
A very special milestone became an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience for more than 2,000 University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown graduates, faculty, staff, alumni, their families and friends when Dr. William H. ("Bill") Cosby, educator, entertainer and comedic genius served as commencement speaker for the celebration of Pitt-Johnstown's 75th anniversary.
Excitement filled the air as families, friends and other loved ones entered the college's Sports Center for the ceremony. The Pitt-Johnstown Concert Band played popular tunes such as "New York, New York" and "America the Beautiful" as the crowd filed in.
Meanwhile, at the John P. Murtha Cambria County Municipal Airport, Mr. Cosby's private jet, Camille (named after his wife), landed.
Cosby processed into the Sports Center with the faculty and administration, wearing the typical graduation gown, but quickly removed it for his traditional attire of a sweatshirt, pants, a Pitt-Johnstown ball cap with a tassel, sunglasses and sneakers - bringing cheers from the crowd.
Pitt-Johnstown President Dr. Albert L. Etheridge, in his introductory remarks, said, "In searching for ways to make this milestone even more meaningful, we decided to aim for the 'stars' and ask if one of America's most widely-recognized comedic geniuses might be willing to speak to our graduates. The day we learned that Dr. Bill Cosby would help us celebrate was indeed a joyful one!" "Always a representative of the people, Dr. Cosby came from a Philadelphia neighborhood where the street was his playground," President Etheridge said. "With his mother as his first audience, he created routines turning everyday happenings into comedy, which went on to become one of his performance trademarks." "Americans seem to easily identify with the characters in Dr. Cosby's comedy and the situations in which they find themselves," the president said. "His comedy has universal messages that provide insights into our everyday lives. It's apparent that the roles of entertainer and educator have crossed throughout his career as he raised American consciousness on familial, intercultural and interracial issues."
Cosby remarked that he received a different impression walking into the Pitt-Johnstown Sports Center than he usually does at other college and university commencement ceremonies where he speaks. He delivers several commencement addresses annually as an advocate of higher education. "What I felt walking in here was something different than what I am used to having projected. It is a sense of appreciation for what's happening to you today. If not by you, by the people sitting around you, up there." Nearly two-thirds of Pitt-Johnstown's graduates represent first-generation college students.
He pointed to the family members and friends in the bleachers and said to the graduates, "Some of those folks sitting up there still know more than you do. They know what you can become. At some point in your life, I advise you to just listen and hear what these people are thinking." The 64-year-old international celebrity pointed to two teachers who had a profound influence on him during his years in school. He told how his fifth-grade teacher "asked me to get up and tell a story. And when I did, my classmates laughed. I don't know how long my routine was, but I worked for free." "I don't know what my teacher saw in me," Cosby quipped. "My mother never thought I was funny."
"I was making $3 million a year when I walked across the platform and picked up my (doctorate) in education at the University of Massachusetts," he said. "My mother knocked over the security guard and jumped in my lap and, with tears running down her face, she said, 'Now, you have something to fall back on.'"
Cosby stayed after his address to shake hands with each of the 500 graduates as they crossed the stage, posed for photos when asked and waved to family members in the bleachers. One of his traditions is to give his baseball cap and tassel to one of the graduates. The recipient at Pitt-Johnstown was Michelle Deal, a history major from Meyersdale, Pa. He also planted a kiss on Dr. Carroll Grimes, Pitt-Johnstown Humanities Division Chairperson, who is retiring from the University after 33 years on the faculty and administration.
"I can't think of a greater graduation gift you could have than by having Dr. Cosby here today," President Etheridge remarked after the comedian's address. "His visit with us is a true high point in the lives of all members of the Pitt-Johnstown family and the Johnstown community."