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Onetime high school dropout William H. Cosby, Jr., refers to himself as the quintessential late bloomer. But when he got his act together, and took it on the road, he worked his way into America’s heart and psyche, not just with his humor, but with his robust commitment to improving the nation’s educational system and strengthening families, a one-two punch for a better future. At its 141st Commencement on Sunday, BU will confer an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters on Cosby, who has a PhD in education from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
In a way, in his long, stellar career as a comedian and actor the 76-year-old Cosby has been an educator as well. The Cosby Show, which ran from 1984 to 1992, focused on an upper-middle-class African American family in New York’s Brooklyn Heights. The five Huxtable children, with an obstetrician father played by Cosby and an attorney mother, made America roar with laughter. But the sitcom, which paved the way for a greater African American presence on prime-time TV, also shed light on serious concerns such as dyslexia and teen pregnancy. Like Cosby himself, especially in recent years when he has spoken out about what he sees as a need for African American men to play a greater role in their children’s lives, the series didn’t shy away from the real-life pressures that sabotage success at school.
Cosby was born in Philadelphia, the son of a US Navy sailor and a maid. He left high school at 19 without graduating, despite being class president and a two-sport team captain. “It wasn’t that I didn’t care,” Cosby, the 2013 School of Education convocation speaker, told the graduates. “I had the idea that this was a free ride.” In spite of his intelligence, he never studied, reasoning that since “sooner or later the world would end,” cracking the books would prove to be a waste of time. He often says that it wasn’t until Navy boot camp—he enlisted after working several low-paying jobs, including a stint shining shoes—that he learned the value of discipline and hard work.
When he left the Navy four years later, he returned to Philadelphia and enrolled in Temple University. While at Temple he worked part-time as a bartender and discovered that his knack for comedy could earn him big tips. After leaving Temple to hone his stand-up act, Cosby crisscrossed the country and in 1963 landed an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. His career soared after that, with comedy albums and a role in the dramatic television series I Spy, the first such series to feature an African American costar. His performance earned him three consecutive Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. He went on to develop the animated comedy series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, based largely on his own inner-city childhood, a series that imparted important educational and life lessons.
But Cosby had some important unfinished business—in the 1970s both he and his wife, Camille, went back to college, earning master’s and doctoral degrees in education.
The Cosby Show debuted in 1984, and became one of the highest rated situation comedies of all time. Cosby’s character—Cliff Huxtable—was soon an international household name and Cosby one of the world’s most revered comics. The show won six Emmys, among them Outstanding Comedy Series in 1985, two Golden Globes, a Peabody, and three NAACP Image Awards.
Cosby has been outspoken about the need for teachers to rescue young people from failure, even—perhaps especially—those “who don’t want to be saved.” Teachers need to reach out to troubled or distracted children, because often “you are it,” he said at last year’s SED convocation. “The children who come to your classroom come from someplace, and you have no idea what it’s like for them.”
Among a long list of honors Cosby has received is a Kennedy Center Honor and the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002.
More information about Commencement can be found on the Commencement website.