Merle Haggard’s older sister has always regretted having tried to teach her wayward brother a lesson. She has always feared she inadvertently pushed him down the wrong road. Rea, then the registrar at Bakersfield High School, took a counselor’s advice on how to best deal with young Merle, then a class-cutting freshman with little apparent interest in school. She arranged to have him sent to Juvenile Hall.
Haggard never went back to school.
But Saturday afternoon, following the pre-concert soundcheck four hours before his Fox Theater performance, Haggard finally clutched a blue-and-white framed sheepskin. “Once a Driller, always a Driller,” BHS Principal David Reese, standing in the alley between two of the band’s tour buses, told the 78-year-old singer. The presentation culminated years of effort by one of Haggard’s grade school classmates, Don Hemingway.
“We talked about doing this years ago, at our 30th high school reunion,” Hemingway said. “The high school turned us down. This time I went to the (office of the Kern High School District) school superintendent.” “Went” is an understatement, he and Reese agreed.
Reese pulled a crumpled pink interoffice memo from his wallet and read aloud what amounted to the district’s official notification of consent.
“Give Merle his darn diploma so this man can stop calling me,” read the note from the office of Scott Cole, the KHSD’s associate superintendent of business.
“I’m glad the superintendent agreed to do this,” said Hemingway, a retired woodworker who, as a graduation gift, presented Haggard with a beautiful bowl made of inlaid wood.
“But,” he said, “it’s not like Merle needed this diploma to get a job or anything.”
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