The once solemn distinction of the honorary degree has deteriorated on many campuses into a rather meaningless intercollegiate sport, with universities competing for headline names and in the quotable drollery of their tributes. A source of publicity and fund raising, the ceremonial too often has become just a sophistication of celebrity tennis except that the players wear black. That anyway was what seemed to be happening at the 107th commencement of the University of Massachusetts late in May as a crowd of 20,000 whooped at the proclamation of William Henry Cosby Jr. as “Doctor of Education.” But this time, as the creator of Fat Albert, Dumb Donald, Old Weird Harold and other Philadelphia rowdies stepped forward in his hooded School of Education gown, the sheepskin was not being pulled over anybody’s eyes. This was an unhonorary degree. Bill Cosby, at 39, had earned his Ed.D.
For seven years, between other gigs, Cos had snuck in course requirements and, in effect, done his practice teaching at prisons and on Sesame Street and The Electric Company. The clincher was a 242-page, 48-footnote dissertation that could not have been ghosted by a Hollywood scriptwriter. Its title: An Integration of the Visual Media via Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids Into the Elementary School Curriculum as a Teaching Aid and Vehicle to Achieve Increased Learning.
“This is really a great moment,” exulted Dr. Cosby as he exited, pursued by fellow matriculants, autograph-seekers, three of his five children, wife Camille and Anna Cosby, who is in her 60s. Cos’s mother could be pardoned her my-son-the-doctor excitement—she had once been an $8-a-day domestic. “Mom just went crazy today,” remarked Bill. “She used to say, ‘Education’s a must.’ If she was dead, she would have gotten up to come here today. Her tears mean so much.”
Cos’s affinity for kids and his desire to teach have long been as familiar as the Philadelphia ghetto childhood that became part of his repertory. He was himself twice a dropout—first after 10th grade to go into the Navy. (His late father, who separated from his mother in Bill’s youth, was a career man.) Cosby picked up a high school equivalency degree through a service correspondence course and then did three years on an athletic scholarship at Temple University before disappointing his mom again by ditching it all for showbiz.
The resumption of his education came in the late ’60s, he recalls, “after I performed at UMass once. I started thinking and met with one of the deans who told me I should give it a shot.” The university arranged a suitably flexible schedule and agreed not to publicize his presence. So Cosby bought a 135-year-old, 16-room farmhouse up the Connecticut River from the Amherst, Mass. campus.
He paid only $65,000, but his wife—whom Cos met on a blind date when she was a psych major at the University of Maryland and married in 1964—spent $325,000 renovating the place and filling it with the antiques that are her passion. “I feel like I’ve paid for the Louvre,” cracks Cos. But some of the treasures are his, including a pair of Ed Wynn’s shoes, a William Gropper painting, a collection of cartoons by Cos’s buddy, New Yorker artist George Booth, and a letter from his favorite author, Mark Twain. Besides the house, the 286-acre property includes a tennis court for the superjock proprietor and two barns, one of which has been turned into a home for Mom and the other into Cosby’s East Coast office. (He has a second home in L.A., much simpler than the previous 31-room Georgian mansion in Beverly Hills referred to as the “Cosby Hilton.”)
Aside from the proximity to the campus, the Cosbys came to New England, he says, for “the change in seasons, and the feeling of taking an old house and completely restoring it.” Camille wakes up at 6 to schlepp the four oldest kids—daughters Erika, 12, Erinn, 10, and Ensa, 4, plus son Ennis, 8—to a local public school. (Erika will switch to a private school in the fall; baby Evin is just 9 months.)
As for what he’ll do with his degree, the good doctor says, “I already have a job.” Not overimpressed by pedagogy, he still believes that “the most important educational vehicle in all life is a parent figure,” and concedes that “TV is mainly for entertainment—it’s not realistic to think you can turn it around.” But, of course, the lead-in to his Saturday morning Fat Albert series goes: “Here’s Bill Cosby coming at you with music and fun, and if you’re not careful, you may learn something before it’s done.”
His other commitments include concert dates at up to $50,000 per; records (he’s sold 11 million, more than any other comic, and collected five Grammys); a pilot for an update of his 1965 / Spy, the breakthrough TV series that first co-starred a black; and a movie, Sitting Pretty, which he’ll produce, direct, score and star in. He let down his own kids terribly when he was too busy to play the Tin Man in the film version of The Wiz, the all-black recasting of The Wizard of Oz. Actually, suggested Cos, “In this age of women’s lib, I’d like to see them have a Tin Woman.” As for himself, “I’m not sure I wouldn’t have made a better Wiz. Or it would have been fun to play the witch.”
There’s very little that Bill Cosby does in life that isn’t fun, and it all earns him into seven digits. That puts him well beyond his “personal dream—making over $500 a week.” But he was “the most excited about any achievement,” reports wife Camille, on that recent warm graduation day at UMass. Afterward they drove home and Bill stripped down to his tennis shorts in an early New England heat wave that was melting the Fat Albert ice sculpture on the buffet table. “I’ll hold on to this day,” says Dr. Cosby, “for a long, long time.”