Cosby urges CMU nerds to 'accept themselves'

Famous comedian uses wry humor -- lots of it -- to send off Carnegie Mellon University graduates

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Looking relaxed as ever in a gray university sweat suit, Bill Cosby bypassed a traditional salute to graduates, addressing those at Carnegie Mellon University simply: "Uhhhh ... Nerds."

With a devilish chuckle, the much-loved actor, author and comedian told the graduates gathered yesterday in Gesling Stadium that he was "bothered why anyone would accept themselves as nerds," who "don't know how to mingle ... don't know how to get along with other people, or dance, or just stand in a room and look human."

The students took the jabs in good humor.

He then recounted the details of a colossal on-stage failure he experienced when in his 20s. He said he recovered by prancing and ad-libbing through the second show.

He managed to work in a couple of the trademark jazz scats made famous on his TV sitcom, but refrained from any Kanye West or Michael Moore-style comments on current events.

"So it's obvious what I'm saying to you," he said, wrapping up the meandering 15-minute tale of his early stand-up career. He paused, then continued after several moments of dead silence from the befuddled crowd of 2,100 graduates and thousands of administrators, faculty and supporters.

"Don't talk yourself into not being you," he said. "Be sure of yourselves, be proud. But you can't be proud and you can't carry it out unless you are sure of yourself and prepared. That's where the nerds stand tall!"

The morning began on a upbeat note when the sun peeped out just as graduates finished entering the stadium for commencement from various corners of the rain-swept campus.

The keynote speaker strolled in accompanied by a regal looking dog on a leash: a stand-in for the school's new official mascot, Scottie the Scottish terrier.

Wearing a black academic gown with doctoral hood over the sweats, a Carnegie Mellon ball cap with a 2007 doctoral tassel and gray Croc sandals, the guest of honor took a seat behind the podium, which proved an ideal spot for heckling the speakers. Later, he removed the robe and hood in a dramatic flourish before strutting to the podium in his sweat suit.

David S. Shapira, chairman of the board of trustees, asked the graduates to stand and thank their families for helping them make it to this moment.

"Bill Cosby is telling me I just stole part of his speech and he's damn mad," Mr. Shapira told the audience.

Student speaker Catherine Scudera countered Mr. Cosby's geek theme, remarking that one thing her classmates appreciated most about Carnegie Mellon was that it "isn't cookie cutter, it's full of weird, insular, quirky people." She also got into the jocular spirit, saying Bill Cosby tried to steal her speech, but he gave it back.

"It wasn't a good speech," Mr. Cosby mumbled, smiling to faculty members seated on stage with him.

Mark G. Wessel also broke from the standard decorum when it was his turn to help confer degrees on graduates of the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management.

Dean Wessel dropped his voice an octave, adopted a gravely tone and belted out in "Fat Albert" style, "HEY, HEY, HEY, Mr. President!" before recommending that the graduates be granted their diplomas.

Before the keynote address, school President Jared L. Cohon and Provost Mark S. Kamlet gave six honorary doctorates. The university honored Helen S. Faison, director of the Pittsburgh Teachers Institute, who taught, counseled and worked as superintendent in the Pittsburgh Public Schools; Wilton A. Hawkins, a trailblazer in Teflon technology; Paolo Lugari, a "chaos scientist" who turned a village in the drylands of Colombia into a thriving sustainable community in 1971.

Also Gerald C. Meyers, a former chairman of American Motors Corp. and manufacturing pioneer; Earl Wild, a world renowned concert pianist who began at NBC radio in the late 1930s; and William H. Cosby Jr., who grew up in Philadelphia housing projects, served in the Navy and, in addition to becoming one of the best known television actors of his generation, holds a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Mr. Cosby received no compensation for the speech, said Carnegie Mellon CMU spokeswoman Teresa Sokol Thomas.

After he reframed the merits of nerd-dom, he told the pepped up graduates he looked up "nerd" in a dictionary. The definition: "A prepared person who doesn't give a damn about the dance."

"So in closing ... I close," he said.

After a beat, the audience realized he was finished and burst into raucous applause.

Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette photos
Carnegie Mellon University commencement speaker comedian Bill Cosby leads "Scottie," the school's new official mascot in the academic procession at the opening of CMU's 110th commencement at Geisling Field yesterday.
Click photo for larger image.
Listen In:
PG reporter Gabrielle Banks attends the Carnegie Mellon University graduation where Bill Cosby speaks and receives an honorary doctorate in humane letters.

Jared L. Cohon, President of CMU, and Provost Mark S. Kamlet give Bill Cosby an honorary doctorate in humane letters.

Bill Cosby's commencement address to the 2007 graduates of Carnegie Mellon.
(About 20 minutes long)

Graduates cheer as Bill Cosby exits Gesling Stadium led by Carnegie Mellon's 12-member "Pipes and Drums Band."

Carnegie Mellon University civil engineering graduates wore hard hats with tassels in lieu of mortarboards for the school's 110th commencement at Gesling Stadium yesterday.
Click photo for larger image.

Gabrielle Banks can be reached at gbanks@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1370.


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