Merle Haggard is finally a graduate of Bakersfield High School, some 60 years after attending his last class there as a truant freshmen. Never mind that Merle never passed a single class. Never mind he’s 78-years-old and was awarded an honorary doctorate first by the California State University in Bakersfield in 2013. He’s now a Bakersfield “Driller” for life thanks to current Bakersfield High School Principal David Reese, and a persistent alum who wanted to see the country music legend given his due by his alma mater.
The honor was bestowed in an informal gathering in an alleyway before Merle’s show at Bakersfield’s Fox Theater Saturday (4-25) afternoon. “But I was only there nine days,” Merle said as he was handed the diploma, apparently somewhat mystified. But Principal Reese insisted he deserved it. “Well, once a Driller, always a Driller,” he said according to the Bakersfield Californian.
It was all the culmination of years of persistence by of one of Haggard’s grade school classmates named Don Hemingway, who had insisted ever since his class’s 30th reunion that Merle should be recognized. His persistence finally paid off as an assemblage of people stood between two tour buses and the honor was bestowed Saturday.
The story is Merle was always a decent student until 8th grade when he began to act up. At the behest of his older sister Lillian Haggard, Merle was sent to Juvenile Hall in an attempt to scare him straight. Unfortunately for his sister and his school, but possibly to the benefit to the history of country music, the Juvenile Hall assignment only aided little Merle’s downward spiral. Soon he was committing petty theft, and breaking out of jail an incredible 17 times in and around Bakersfield before being sent to San Quentin despite the lack of committing a major crime. That is where he would be scared straight for good, and inspired to start a country music career after watching Johnny Cash perform one of his famed prison performances.
After Merle left San Quentin, he never committed another major offense. California Governor Ronald Reagan pardoned Haggard for any and all crimes and expunged his criminal record in 1972.
“I’m glad the superintendent agreed to do this,” said classmate Don Hemingway. “But it’s not like Merle needed this diploma to get a job or anything.”