Bill Cosby was smoking a cigar during a break from a performance when Morton Klein met him long ago. Each man had attended Philadelphia’s Central High School — Klein is 67 years old and a 1965 graduate, Cosby is 77 — but it was pure luck their paths were crossing now at a side entrance to Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City.
Klein, a Lower Merion resident and president of the Zionist Organization of America, is used to hobnobbing with public figures. Just the other night his organization hosted an event that featured appearances from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and media magnate Mort Zuckerman and a video address from Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet he still recalls his first encounter with Cosby being special.
“My opening words: ‘Oh my God, you’re Bill Cosby,’” Klein said. “He said, ‘I know who I am, but who the heck are you?’ Then he said his whole life.
“I thought of him as someone Philadelphians are proud of because he’s had such a distinguished career and is such a fabulously gifted storyteller,” Klein continued. “And he seemed to preach working hard, family life and excellence. He really seemed to have the right values. I was proud of him. What a shock.”
“Everybody’s got stuff in the closet that isn’t great.” — Vera Peeples-Primus, alumni relations director at Germantown High School, which Cosby attended
Though allegations of sexual assault against Cosby were reported extensively in Philadelphia several years ago, their resurgence since comedian Hannibal Buress’ local October performance have the nation talking about his legacy. Nationally, Cosby has been shunned, with Netflix and NBC recently canceling deals with him as David Letterman’s CBS late-night show canceled an appearance scheduled for last week.
It’s more complicated here, a city that claims Cosby as a local boy done good. He grew up in a North Philly public housing project, dropped out of two high schools and spent a year at Temple before pursuing comedy. Since making it big, Cosby gained renown for charity work largely focused on Philadelphia health and education. He has provided full tuition and fees for more than 40 students at Temple and funded or partially funded at least 10 scholarships there. Just five months ago, he spoke at the funeral for Lewis Katz, the new Inquirer owner and a fellow member of Temple’s Board of Trustees.
Cosby’s most recent public appearance in Philadelphia came on Veteran’s Day. He wore a Navy sweatshirt and spoke at a ceremony on JFK Boulevard. That day, local Congressman Chaka Fattah brushed aside concerns of the sexual assault allegations, saying Philly needed a “Bill Cosby month.” The crowd cheered.
Many Philadelphians like Klein have a hard time believing in Cosby’s innocence, given 18 women have now accused him of sexual assault. Others are conflicted, remaining steadfast in Cosby’s record of family values, philanthropy and activism, especially for the black community.
The early years
Cosby grew up in the Richard Allen Homes on 11th and Poplar, went to Central High School and Germantown High School and spent two years at Temple in the early 60s. Though he didn’t graduate on time from any of those institutions (Temple later granted him a degree) he’s always returned, appearing at reunions, speaking to high school classes and showing up at neighborhood gatherings.
Klein said Cosby would attend high school reunions at Central over the years. No matter that Cosby attended in the ’50s and Klein’s class graduated in 1965, he’d often come by to tell stories and jokes.
The alumni weren’t the lone recipients of his attention, either. Sophie Grimaldi, now a sophomore at Temple, said Cosby spoke to the freshman class and the graduating class at Central every year.
“He really cares about his roots and what got him to where he is now,” Grimaldi said. “I haven’t really done my research about what’s happened. At this point, he doesn’t seem like [a role model].”
Central principal Timothy McKenna did not respond to a request for comment about Cosby and what his role might be at the school going forward.
He spent time at his other high school, too, until it closed last year. Germantown’s alumni association president Vera Peeples-Primus told Billy Penn that Cosby visited Germantown for positive reasons multiple times. She’s heard from people in her community about Cosby, but she’s not sure what to believe.
“Society always has things to say and then society moves on like it never happened,” Peeples-Primus said. “He’s done positive things. Everybody’s got stuff in the closet that isn’t great.”
On Temple’s campus
Cosby supporters are easy to find at Temple. One need look no further than the university’s brass. In spite of the allegations against Cosby, Temple announced last week he would remain on the school’s Board of Trustees, offering no comment why.
Publicly, Cosby has long worn Temple sweatshirts, lending fame to what had been an afterthought commuter school. Behind the scenes, he’s done even more. Considering the numerous scholarships Cosby has endowed and the students he’s paid tuition for, former Temple chancellor Peter Liacouras told the Inquirer in 2003 Cosby’s contributions had been “priceless.”
Walk around campus and ask about Cosby, and the mood is somber. Those who no longer hold Cosby in high esteem do so regrettably.
“I’m not going to allow a person who I basically looked up to for 20 years to change my perspective now when you can’t even give me plausible evidence.” — Temple University sophomore Brendan McBride
“I watched The Cosby Show when I was a kid and I always thought well of him,” said Phillip Logan, a graduate student. “I think the sad thing is we do have a culture of women being silenced and for being shamed for coming forward when it comes to dealing with sexual assault issues and any type of gender-based violence. I just hope that Bill Cosby, especially being someone who’s very prominent in the black community, actually says something and doesn’t just remain silent.”
Others still believe in him. Sophomore Brendan McBride said he’s seen a different side of Cosby through his many speeches at Temple and in the area.
“I’m not going to allow a person who I basically looked up to for 20 years to change my perspective now when you can’t even give me plausible evidence,” McBride said. “No one has yet to say, ‘this time, this date he did this and this is how I can prove it.’ And until that happens, I’m sorry, or unless he comes out with a confession. But you know, even then I think it’d be hard for me to believe seriously, because it’s just like, ‘why’?”
‘No trespassing’ in Cheltenham
Cosby still has a Philadelphia home to which he can retreat — the home near the corner of New Second Street and Church Road in Cheltenham that’s mentioned in a civil suit filed by Andrea Constand, then the director of operations for the Temple women’s basketball team.
This is how I feel about Bill Cosby’s Allegation charges!!! http://t.co/4kIIrzTB8j
— Gregory Van Loan (@gregoryvanloan) November 23, 2014
The house is tucked behind a row of trees and has several auxiliary buildings, a sign on the front that reads “no trespassing” and another that warns onlookers a security system is in place. According to Montgomery County records, Cosby bought the home on three acres of property in 1983 for almost a quarter of a million dollars. It’s now appraised at $772,000.
A row of duplexes sit in front of the home on Church Road, and some of Cosby’s neighbors were less than willing to talk about him.
“I’m not talking about that shit,” one neighbor said. Others simply shut their doors, or didn’t answer when they saw a reporter’s notebook.
Shortly before the allegations against Cosby resurfaced, Klein wrote a letter that was published in The New York Times praising the biography “Cosby: His Life and Times.” Klein hasn’t spoken with Cosby in a long time but says a mutual friend of theirs said Cosby was pleased he had written a positive note about the biography.
Given the similar claims of sexual assault from so many women, Klein is now re-evaluating Cosby’s legacy.
“If they’re true, it’s more than tragic,” he said. “It’s disgraceful. It’s a shame one of Philly’s favorite sons who most Philadelphians are so proud of, that he’s done these disgraceful things in his life.”