BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) - Comedian Bill Cosby found success in the hands of those who motivated him.
And he wants Moravian College students to do the same.
Cosby spoke to a crowd of an estimated 1,500 students and faculty Wednesday evening at Moravian College. The event, part of Moravian's United Student Government's Prestigious Speaker Series, was closed to the public.
The 76-year-old Cosby took to the stage dressed casually in a Moravian College sweatshirt and lounge pants, telling the crowd why he joined the U.S. Navy in the 1950s.
There, he trained as a hospital corpsman, working mostly with war veterans, and he completed his high school diploma. He later earned a scholarship to Temple University in Philadelphia.
"My choice of choosing the Navy went the following way - How do I want to die?," he told the group, sprinkling traditional humor into the story. "If I'm in the Air Force, ... get blown up in the sky. If I'm in the Army, I get shot, killed in the mud, in the foxhole. If I join the Marines, I die in boot camp."
Following an outburst of laughter from the group, Cosby continued, "I joined the Navy because I'd be in the ocean and my mother wouldn't have to worry about my underwear ... because mothers always worry if anything happens to you, you will have on clean underwear. In the middle of the ocean, the ocean water will wash the underwear ... they will say he actually died with clean underwear on."
Cosby spoke a great deal about his late mother, Anna Pearl Cosby, telling the crowd that while his family grew up in the projects, his mother taught him to work for something better.
He had quit high school in the 10th grade for a job as an apprentice in a shoe shop. Eventually, his high IQ scores earned him training as a physical therapist, followed by assignment to the Bethesda Naval Hospital.
Cosby said he used to think if he lost his legs or arms or couldn't talk, he wouldn't want to live. That was until he worked with patients who lost limbs and saw their determination.
"Working with people who had lost a leg, they didn't kill themselves," he said. "What I heard was they stayed depressed a couple weeks after the surgery, and then the spirit of the soul would kick in to live, to become a person who will work with whatever their disability is and I became a person who would help that person to learn to walk, to move beyond."
Cosby earned a master's degree in education in 1972 and a doctorate in education in 1977 from the University of Massachusetts. He used "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" as a teaching tool in elementary schools, telling the crowd he specifically wanted to help seventh- and eighth- graders stay on the right path.
"I dedicated myself to grabbing them and telling them about education," Cosby said.
Cosby admitted during the lecture he often didn't pay much attention in class, noting he found "a quiet way of not listening," and struggled to pass the SAT exam. He credited a sixth grade teacher in pushing him to succeed and even getting his mother involved in staying on top of him when he wanted to fall back into bad habits.
"I went from unsatisfactory work to O's - outstanding - because she never stopped," Cosby said of the educator.
He also attributed his success as a writer to a college professor who taught freshman creative writing, calling him the "unknown motivator."
"I never tried to make anything funny, I just wanted to write to make the reader feel what I was feeling," he said. "And it turned to comedy after I wrote the straight part. I would then add on the comedy."
When a Liberty High School physics teacher asked him for advice on how she could motivate students, he asked her, "What drew you to physics? What does it do? What is the value? What is the feeling in it?"
A student asked Cosby what advice he had for those graduating who didn't know what to do afterward.
"Get a job," Cosby replied. "Just keep working, listening and understanding business and what it's about."
Following the lecture, in which Moravian students applauded and gave a standing ovation, many said they would be walking away with his messages.
"Bill Cosby is my idol," said Bill Collins, a computer science major. "I thought it was very enlightening."
"I thought he was a well-rounded person, so down-to-earth," said Meghan Mawhinney, a sophomore in the nursing program. "He made us think we can do it."