“Lemme smell your breath. Do you drink?” Bill Cosby asked Newhalville’st Lillian Morrison, as the comedian and an entourage waded into R2 turf with a message.
Not only does she not drink, Morrison told the iconic funny man. She’s a great grandmother who runs a food pantry. She has survived cancer for 16 years. And Tuesday just happened to be her birthday. She turned 70.
True to form, Cosby embraced her and then mixed streetwise humor with a streetwise message: “We want our 70-year-olds to be able to walk at night without worrying about being hit in the head; so she has the money to pay for her medication. She’s a 16-year cancer survivor but she may not survive here. Let’s build pride.”
The tour was the culmination of a day that began early with a Cosby lecture at Southern Connecticut State University, then a pep talk to wildly enthusiastic kids and staff at the King-Robinson School Interdistrict Magnet School.
Cosby brought the house down mimicking kids’ styles of laughter and schoolwork excuses. (“I was robbed and the robber stole my homework!”)
Southern’s new president, Stanley Battle (at left in above photo with Newhalville Alderman Charles Blango), invited Cosby to New Haven. Public schools chief Reggie Mayo said Battle wanted to focus on the aspect of the New Haven Promise campaign devoted to helping reduce the high school dropout rate. Cosby, with whom Battle worked in Maryland and North Carolina, wanted to take a message about parents’ role in stopping truancy right to the heart of it in New Haven.
Which was how they ended up on Read Street, where the recently busted R2 gang has been flaunting a different kind of campaign, of terror.
“So much stuff happens at the park on Basset [and Shelton] I’m afraid to let my kids and grandkids go there, they’re bullets flying,” Lillian Morrison told Cosby.
On the stoop of one house, Cosby talked to two boys, one of whom had been expelled from Basset Street School. “Fifteen years old and out of school already,” Cosby quipped. “Must be a genius.”
The humor was a portal to a gently chiding, take-responsibility sermon about staying in school: “Look at me. You’re looking at a person who has a GED. Come over to Adult Ed and be successful so you can buy that house. This is the way America works. It’s there for you, but it won’t come to you.”
State Rep. Toni Walker (pictured) followed with a call for anyone in hearing distance to register at Adult Ed, where she serves as assistant principal.
Reverend John Henry Scott III of the Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church of Christ then took the boys’ phone numbers and urged them to come to his church for its enrichment programs.
Local mentors will be following Cosby’s footsteps, knocking on doors, through the city’s new Promise program. The aim: to reorient at-risk kids and their parents to the city’s new college opportunities.
As Cosby visited the next house and then another, someone called out, “Buy it for the Huxtables!” That was a reference to the fictional family in which Cosby was paterfamilias and doctor, The Bill Cosby Show.
“I’ve just bought this house,” Cosby responded from the balcony. “Theo [the show’s son] will be arriving at 7 tonight.”