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Leave 'Em Laughing: Bill Cosby Speaks at Master's Convocation

Before families and friends of the TC master's graduates descended upon the Cathedral of St. John the Divine for the 1998 convocation ceremony, media commentators, photographers and reporters hurriedly set up their equipment. They wanted to find the best spot for viewing the featured speaker: actor, writer, educator Bill Cosby.

Cosby arrived earlier than most of the players in the day's events, wearing a TC baseball cap and a T-shirt bearing a photograph of his late son, Ennis, in a cap and gown and sunglasses. The message around the photo read, "Hello, Friend," and on the back was written, "Dignity, that's what it's all about." As others filed in to prepare for the ceremony, Cosby was entertaining the behind-the-scenes staff in St. Saviour Chapel-the "green room" of the Cathedral. He was chatting and joking with everyone, non-stop, as if he were at a reunion with old friends.

Retiring Professor Margaret Jo Shepherd arrived to be Cosby's escort and he presented her with a T-shirt to match his own. He conferred two more-one to President Arthur Levine and another to the student speaker, Melissa Steel. The trustees and President's party smiled excitedly and laughed at the entertainer's humorous banter as they donned their robes and adjusted their hoods. As Cosby put on his robe, he was presented with a new TC cap fitted with a gold tassel to wear for the ceremony.

The organ music resounded through the Cathedral and the group obediently lined up to wait for their cue. Cosby, seemingly the most calm of the assembly, continued to chat all the way to the stage. He waved and greeted the graduates as they cheered wildly at seeing the star. Cameramen and photographers rushed to find the perfect angle to capture the entertainer's march up the aisle to his seat.

As part of the ceremony, Cosby received the Teachers College Medal for Distinguished Service, TC's highest honor given to select people who have made exemplary contributions to education. President Levine introduced the presentation by saying that "in addition to his role as a comedian, actor, director and writer, Bill Cosby is, above all, an educator."

Professor Shepherd read the award citation and Dean Zumwalt presented Cosby with his medal. Shepherd said, "You struggled with the decision to follow a dream to be a teacher or the dream to entertain. You found a way to bring these dreams together to touch more lives than you could have possibly imagined." The citation noted Cosby's newest venture, a series of children's stories begun by his son Ennis before his death.

Cosby, in addressing the graduates, told them to think about the teachers they didn't want and become that person. He described his own such teacher-Mary Beth Forchik. "My mother made sure that I got her," he said. "I sure didn't want her. She could leave the room and nobody talked." He continued, "I don't remember the doctor who operated on this left shoulder; I don't remember who gave me a baseball glove. But I remember Mary Beth Forchik's name, and I am still scared of her. But I know that she loved us."

He exhorted them to get to know the children they are teaching, to speak up about overcrowding in the classrooms, to get petitions signed to protest if there is no heat in the building. "Most of you are here because you want to make a change in the world," Cosby said. "I want you all to speak up."

President Levine addressed the graduates after Cosby's remarks. He, too, stressed that, as educators, they can and would make a difference in the world. "Each of you will touch dozens of lives," he told them. "Family, friends, students, clients, and co-workers. For ill or for good, you will make a difference in every one of their lives, whether you wish to or not."

Student speaker Melissa Steel, who was the winner of a Sindlinger Award for outstanding educational writing, also expressed her faith in the power of the graduates to change the people they touch. "Imagine now that all the people we will reach are crowded in this room today," she said. "Can you see the ocean of possibility flowing from us here today? Let me tell you, we are powerful: We are educators."

Also sitting inconspicuously in the audience was designer Ralph Lauren and his guests who were there to celebrate his wife Ricky's graduation. Mrs. Lauren received her master's in Counseling Psychology.

On the Columbia University campus the morning following the master's convocation, TC's graduates joined those from the various other schools which comprise the University. President Rupp of Columbia addressed the graduates and conferred degrees.

TC doctoral graduates gathered at Riverside Church to be hooded by the dean later that afternoon. Prior to the ceremony, Thomas Evans, Chair of the Trustees, was presented with the Cleveland E. Dodge Medal for Distinguished Service. Evans received the award because of his many contributions to education, including his book, The School in the Home, and his founding of MENTOR, an initiative which matches mentors from law firms with public school students.

Among those receiving doctoral degrees was Peter Coleman, Research Assistant Professor and Co-Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution. Coleman's dissertation received the status of distinction and was entitled Psychological Resistance to and Facilitation of Power-Sharing in Organizations.

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