Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Cosby Tragedy A Loss For All Families

Diana Griego Erwin Mcclatchy New

I remember the first time I ever laid eyes on Bill Cosby. I was a kid drifting off to sleep when my dad called me from the next room. Groggy-eyed, I stumbled into the living room in my PJs.

“Sit down, sit down. I want you to see this guy,” dad said. I’m sure I was perplexed. Dad never got me up in the middle of the night to watch TV.

I remember plopping down on the carpet on my stomach, my head propped up on my hands the way kids do. A man about my dad’s age was on a late-night talk show making funny faces and talking about being a boy. The story had to do with torturing his little brother Russell by telling him to watch his toes on account of the turtleheads in the bed.

Russell didn’t believe in turtleheads at first, but soon he was big-eyed and whimpering.

A consummate storyteller with impeccable timing, Cosby made me feel like I was right there between the sheets listening to the two brothers whisper-fight in the night. When Cosby’s dad came storming down the hallway, it was my own dad, his temper stretched dental-floss thin.

My dad and I never laughed so hard together as we did that night. I could relate to the Cos because I sometimes tortured my kid sister with tales of my own. My dad was drawn to Cosby because he and his brother shared similar misdeeds and adventures. They also shared a bed.

As the years went on, Cosby became a father himself, a Jell-O spokesman surrounded by kids and Dr. Cliff Huxtable, the lovable, baffled father on the NBC hit, “The Cosby Show.”

And so it is that he became, in an eloquent, warm, goofy, self-effacing way, America’s Dad. Which is why the senseless murder of his only son Ennis on a Southern California road last week touched and saddened us in a profound way. It was as if it had happened to the loved one of someone close to us.

What little is known of the slaying so far is eerily like the roadside killing of Michael Jordan’s father in 1994. Once again, the loved one of one of America’s most beloved figures is senselessly and violently murdered.

We didn’t know 27-year-old Ennis William Cosby, but we knew his dad, America’s Dad, Bill Cosby. His pain is our pain, although somehow we don’t feel entitled to it. And if this can happen to his child then no child is safe.

We’ve suspected as much for a long time, but couldn’t bear to say the words.

Now we know it.

After the initial shock wore off, I began wondering when Cosby will joke again about the American family, or if he ever can again. When Cosby told jokes about fathers and sons, Ennis was that son. When viewers laughed at the confused yet loving relationship between Cliff Huxtable and his son Theo on “The Cosby Show,” Theo was Ennis’ television cover.

Yet despite the easygoing warmth and middle-class values Cosby exudes, he’s known hardship and tragedy.

Raised in a small apartment in an African American neighborhood in Philadelphia, Cosby was the oldest of four boys born to William and Anna Cosby. His father held a number of jobs, anything that called for a hard, reliable worker with no particular job skills. His mother was a homemaker.

Despite her best efforts, James, two years younger than Bill and a sickly child, died of rheumatic fever when he was 6.

The tragedy changed everything.

Cosby’s father seemed to give up on the constant struggle of providing for his family. He joined the Navy, set sail and was no longer a presence in the house. In time, his parents divorced.

Bill became the man of the house. According to biographer Caroline Latham, Cosby escaped getting mixed up in the petty crime flourishing in his neighborhood because he couldn’t stand hurting his mother.

“The thing that always turned me around and kept me from taking a pistol and holding up a store or jumping in and beating some old person on the street was that I could go to jail, and this would bring a great amount of shame on my mother,” Cosby once said.

If only the violent thugs running the streets these days had that same respect; that same conscience.

Cosby once said he wove important moral lessons into his “Fat Albert” works to combat all the killing in the streets, which he called “false manhood.”

What a terrible way for him to learn how right he was.


The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Diana Griego Erwin McClatchy News Service