Bill Cosby offered UNC Pembroke graduates advice mixed with humor at the largest commencement in University history on May 16.
It was a sun drenched and sweltering 90 degrees for UNCP's first outdoor commencement, but Cosby took the heat in stride. "I've always wondered why people wear black in the sun, and it's 90 degrees out here," he said. "The oxymoronic part of this is that these are the most educated people here."
After receiving an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree and delivering a 30-minute commencement address, Cosby shed his ceremonial robes, and, dressed in his more familiar t-shirt and baseball cap, congratulated each of the 520 graduates as they received their diplomas. The crowd of approximately 7,000 in UNCP's baseball stadium roared with approval as he clowned with the graduates.
Amy Young, a 22-year-old business graduate from Pinehurst, said she will remember this day forever. "I stuck my hand out to shake (Cosby's hand), and he knocked it away," Ms. Young told The Robesonian newspaper in Lumberton. "But instead, he stuck out his arms and gave me a hug, a really big hug."
In presenting Cosby for his honorary degree, Student Government President Katerina Vasolopoulis referred to the Class of 1998 as the "Huxtable generation," named for the role he played in "The Cosby Show." Cigar in hand and wearing a white t-shirt with the words "Hello Friend" written on it, Cosby played to the crowd. They cheered every move including his entrance to the field wearing a tasseled UNC Pembroke baseball hat.
When asked by reporters why he agreed to come to Pembroke, he said "The chancellor (Joseph B. Oxendine) has my college transcript and has threatened to expose my grades." Chancellor Oxendine, 68, was a new professor in Temple University's physical education program and Cosby, 60, was in his class. Dr. Oxendine introduced Cosby Saturday with his arm around the comedian.
"Bill is the type of student who stood out at Temple," Chancellor Oxendine said. "He was an outstanding athlete and a little older than the average student because of his tour of duty in the Navy. He was also something of a character in class, although not a disruptive student."
Cosby was conferred an honorary Doctor of Humane letters by the chancellor.
Rear Admiral Michael L. Holmes, U.S. Navy and a 1972 UNCP graduate, was conferred an honorary Doctor of Science degree. Rear Adm. Holmes has attained the highest rank of any Lumbee Indian in the Armed Services. A career Navy avaitor, he commands the Patrol Wings of the U.S. Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor. Responding to a Cosby remark during the ceremony that his own Navy career ended with the lowly rank of HMC III, Rear Adm. Holmes promoted him on the spot, saying "Consider yourself a Senior Chief."
Following Cosby's speech, Chancellor Oxendine summed up the graduation by calling it the most memorable in UNCP history. "It is well known that most graduates don't remember who spoke at their graduation, and nobody can remember what they said," Chancellor Oxendine said. "That is not so for Class of 1998."
For his part, Cosby delivered serious advice to graduates while keeping them laughing.
"Number one, I would like to tell you not to try to make changes in the world. Make changes in yourself and that will make changes in the world. Number two, set goals...set simple goals like pay off your student loan...like get up in the morning when the bell rings.Number three, have a good meal today, sort of like dead student walking."
Cosby issued warnings about life outside college. "You are now a person being forced out of the best job you'll ever have," he said. "There's no spring break out here where we are. Christmas holiday is the day itself. On top of that, you'll be starting at the bottom. Some of you will be interns -- that's a French word for slave."
The comedian told the graduates to rely on hard work and to have faith in the good training they have received by their professors. "For those of you who go on to graduate school, this time you're really going to do statistics... and it's boring," he said. "But remember, an "A" student anywhere is an "A" student anywhere. Don't worry about those big name universities. They didn't get the juices flowing like your professors here did. So many talk a lot, but can't do a damn thing. Not this group."
Cosby also told the graduates to respect the wisdom of their elders and offered some words of wisdom from his own grandparents. "You've got to remember who these old people are. They have a well that is very full and deep," he said.
"Remember, these people may have only a third grade education, but they know a lot more than you." Cosby said after a heated but unresolved debate in a Temple University classroom over whether the glass is half full or half empty, his grandmother Gertrude Cosby, who only had a junior high school education, settled the matter saying, "It depends on whether you're pouring or drinking."
Of Grandfather Cosby's lengthy Sunday prayers, he said, "I didn't understand a word after he said, ‘let us pray.'" When, as an adult, Cosby told his grandfather of this, "Grand dad just looked at me and said, ‘I wasn't talking to you.' "You've always been like an island surrounded by these people. Through you, they live. Some of them have not gotten through the sixth grade. They scrubbed, they washed, they baked and they dug. They did everything for you."
Gervais Oxendine, a member of the UNCP Board of Trustees, presented Rear Adm. Holmes for his honorary degree. The Grand Marshall was Dr. David K. Eliades, recipient of the UNC Board of Governors Teaching Award. He is a professor in the History Department and currently director of the American Studies program. The Rev. Jerry Lowry, pastor of the Seaside United Methodist Chruch of Sunset Beach, delivered the invocation.
Music was provided by the UNCP Chamber Singers and the University Concert Band.