Merle Haggard is a three-time Grammy winner, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the recipient of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor. The legendary “poet of the common man” also holds an honorary doctorate from California State University in Bakersfield. Now, the 78-year-old proves you’re never too old — or accomplished — to receive something most young students take for granted: a high school diploma.
Six decades after attending Bakersfield High School (for less than two weeks), Haggard has received his diploma, in spite of having never passed a single class before dropping out as a freshman. The Bakersfield Californian reports that David Reese, Bakersfield High School principal, and Don Hemingway, one of the Hag’s grade-school classmates, urged his alma mater to honor the singer-songwriter as a fellow “Driller,” in spite of his less-than-impressive academic record.
Haggard was presented with his long-awaited sheepskin at an informal gathering in an alley outside Bakersfield’s Fox Theater on Saturday afternoon. “But I was only there nine days,” the bemused entertainer said as he was handed the blue-and-white-framed document.
“Well, once a Driller, always a Driller,” Principal Reese said.
Haggard, whose older sister, Lillian Haggard Rea, was registrar at the high school at the same time her brother was routinely truant, had arranged with a counselor to have the future country icon sent to Juvenile Hall to straighten him out. It didn’t work…not right away, anyway. In 1958, Haggard would serve a little less than two years at San Quentin State Prison for burglary. As an inmate at San Quentin, Haggard witnessed a performance by country giant Johnny Cash, which he would credit for finally turning things around and setting him on his own path to superstardom. In 1972, he was pardoned by then-California Governor Ronald Reagan.
Hemingway, a retired woodworker, presented his classmate with a wooden bowl as a graduation gift.
“I’m glad the superintendent agreed to do this,” he said. “But it’s not like Merle needed this diploma to get a job or anything.”
These days, Haggard has a different kind of joint on his mind. He and his longtime pal Willie Nelson are set to release their new duet album, Django and Jimmie, on June 2nd, featuring “It’s All Going to Pot,” the first single and video from the LP.