Bakersfield-bred country music legend Merle Haggard didn't make it out of ninth grade, but his level of educational attainment will soon cease to be an issue -- as if it ever was.
Haggard and Buck Owens, his onetime mentor and co-architect of the Bakersfield Sound, will receive the highest honors Cal State Bakersfield has within its power to bestow: an honorary doctor of fine arts for Haggard, the first such honorary doctorate CSUB has ever awarded; and a posthumous Presidential Medal of Honor from CSUB President Horace Mitchell for Owens, who died in 2006. The Medal of Honor is the highest posthumous award that can be given by the CSU system.
Both awards will be presented at the School of Arts and Humanities' June 14 commencement ceremony.
"I'd like to think it's richly deserved," said Jim Shaw, Owens' longtime right-hand man and band leader of the Buckaroos, who still entertain crowds regularly at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace.
"He was such a booster for Bakersfield in every different way, and I know he gave out a lot of scholarship awards through the years. I'm so glad that they're giving him that honor."
Haggard admitted to being mildly uncomfortable with all of the attention, and especially with words like "legend." "I'd be more comfortable with something like 'professor,'" he said in a statement.
"Merle Haggard is nothing less than an American icon," Richard Collins, dean of CSUB's School of Arts and Humanities, said in a statement released by the university Thursday evening. "...He has exemplified the values of hard work, creativity and character that are exemplified by Kern County in particular and California in general. This award recognizes Mr. Haggard's pre-eminence in his field and in his role as an emissary to the world in part through his role in disseminating the Bakersfield Sound."
Haggard joins an auspicious list of musical celebrities who have been honored with honorary doctorates from the CSU system -- among them jazz great Herbie Hancock (Fresno State), rock legend Neil Young (San Francisco State), opera tenor Placido Domingo and Broadway star Carol Channing (Cal State Stanislaus), and sitar player Ravi Shankar (Cal State San Marcos). Haggard will be the first country music star to receive the award.
The School of Arts and Humanities said that recognition of Haggard's "intellectual and humane values is especially appropriate for the CSU system in light of his championing working-class virtues and the dignity of the common man."
Haggard was born and raised in Oildale, so "it is appropriate that Mr. Haggard receive the award from CSU Bakersfield," according to the statement, which also noted Haggard's recent involvement with the university. "His status as a local hero was celebrated in 2009 on the CSUB campus through 'Oildale and Beyond: Interpreting the Region through Words, Images, and Music,' a conference held with CSUB in conjunction with the Oildale Centennial that did much to bring town and gown together," the statement read.
The honor coincides nicely with CSUB's plans for a 2014 commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the publication of John Steinbeck's classic novel, "The Grapes of Wrath." Haggard has agreed to support the celebration by dedicating a concert at the Fox Theater in downtown Bakersfield to the yearlong celebration, "Proud to be an Okie: Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath."
The concert date has not been set.