Bill’s Graduation Lessons (Newsweek submission: 6/9/08)

By Christopher Wink | June 9, 2008 | Newsweek submission

Bill Cosby told me I shouldn’t worry. No one was going to remember anything I said anyway.

In May, I graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia and was honored to address my peers and their families as our student commencement speaker. For my portion, I urged Temple graduates of 2008, in addition to those of the past and those yet to come, to stand by our obligation to leveraging our intellectual capital in the communities that surround the university’s Main Campus in central North Philadelphia.

Temple’s gift is that it is surrounded by neighborhoods that aren’t as near to any other university as large and as influential. I hope my fellow graduates and I remember and forever appreciate that, I said.

Cosby – the seminal 20th-century entertainment icon turned controversial race commentator – addressed my fellow graduates after I did.

“I told Wink,” Cosby said to nearly 10,000 new-alumni and family members. “Wink, don’t give that speech. Nobody’s going to remember a thing you said, Wink.”

He told me something similar before we went on.

“Nobody will even be listening,” he assured me.

Of course, despite what I might want to think, the Cos knew what he was saying.

Each May universities parade big name celebrities, politicians and intellectuals through their graduations to get attention, to display prestige and, perhaps, to make a meaningful experience a memorable day. But we mostly forget who spoke at graduations of the past. These speeches have become routine and predictable. I am not foolish enough to think my seven minutes were anything anyone will remember for very long, if anyone was listening at all. Graduations are full of children and grandparents, lots of people who are there for one face of thousands, not the speeches, not the pomp, not the circumstance. The words of this 22-year-old have likely already been completely forgotten by most.

Cosby’s address though was something different for my graduating class.

Bill Cosby was raised in Philadelphia and went to Temple. He is among our best known alumni and a member of our Board of Trustees. What’s more, rather than trot our celebrities or politicians, Cosby was the lone speaker at Temple’s commencements throughout the 1990s through 2003.

But he hadn’t spoken at a university-wide event since August 2004, when he welcomed the Class of 2008 – my class – by promising to be at our graduation four years later if we were there. In the last weeks of my college career, The Temple News, the university’s student newspaper, wrote editorials calling on Cosby to be true to his word. But his publicist didn’t call back, and Temple’s administration had “no official stance.”

Some said the relationship started to fracture after January 2004 allegations that he sexually assaulted a former Temple employee. Some said Cosby’s book tour that featured him critiquing elements of black America didn’t help.

But he showed up, and then he walked into the Liacouras Center – with me at his side – and it sounded like a rock concert – not too bad for a 70-year-old (July 12, 1937). Young faces of every color and background – the hallmark of the self-labeled ‘diversity university’ – dressed in black gowns, draped over each other to stick out digital cameras and cell phones. Bill Cosby and I, preceded and followed by university dignitaries, split the graduates down the middle of our college’s basketball court, thousands of mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles and sisters and brothers and cousins and friends applauding from their feet.

Temple’s graduations are not known to be reserved affairs.

“They weren’t cheering for you,” he would later tell me.

Of those pictures that so many screaming Temple graduates accidentally took of me when Cosby strode too quickly, the comedian had a similarly cutting remark that still makes me laugh.

“They’ll crop you out by tomorrow,” he promised me.

After I spoke, University President Ann Weaver Hart introduced Dr. William H. Cosby. The crowd again rang out, like we were at one of his comedy shows, not our own graduation.

“Thank God nobody has yet asked you to follow your dream,” Cosby said. “Because you never really slept that well so that you could dream.”

And we laughed.

“You have no clear idea what is forward,” he said of our futures. He gestured up to the families crowded on the second level of our basketball arena. “Only the people sitting up here have any idea where you should go and what you should be.”

And we cheered.

Temple is a big-name, professional research institution like many others in this country. In many ways, the college experience has merged into a single story. Leave home. Drink beer. Study. Frisbee. Study. Throw your cap in the air to the tune of the same speech. One from the biggest name a university can bring in, or the most sentimental story that can be told or the advice from some 22-year-old who is too young to know much of anything.

No one from Temple’s Class of 2008 will remember my speech, but I suspect they will remember Bill Cosby. I know I will.

As submitted to Newsweek magazine’s ‘My Turn’ column in June 2008.