He’s Dr. Merle Haggard now.
The bad-boy hero of the rebel strain of music that put Bakersfield on America’s cultural map half a century ago did something Friday he hadn’t done since he was 9: He sat still in school.
Cal State Bakersfield presented the Oildale-bred singer-songwriter with the university’s highest honor Friday at commencement ceremonies for the School of Arts and Humanities. Joining him posthumously was his equally famous contemporary, Buck Owens, who was represented by his eldest son.
Haggard received the 10th honorary doctorate and the first doctor of fine arts in history awarded by CSUB.
Owens received the President’s Medal, the first to be awarded posthumously. “Buddy” Alan Owens accepted the medal from CSUB President Horace Mitchell on his father’s behalf.
Owens thanked the audience with a few words for the graduates.
“If he were here, he’d say something along the lines of, ‘Work hard, show up on time, and never assume anything,’” he said of Buck, who died in 2006.
Owens’ medal is the highest posthumous award that the CSU system can give.
Mitchell then introduced Haggard, who had been sitting patiently through all the welcomes and introductory comments by students and administrators.
Standing near the podium dressed in doctoral cap and gown, Mitchell shared key points and accomplishments in the star’s life to an attentive, early-morning crowd that extended across the lawn of the CSUB Amphitheatre.
“Merle Haggard is an American icon and living legend,” said Mitchell, who praised Haggard’s contributions to the arts and acknowledged his new standing as “professor of the common man.”
Haggard joined an auspicious list of musical celebrities who have been honored with honorary doctorates from the CSU system, among them jazz great Herbie Hancock Herbie Hancock (Fresno State), rock legend Neil Young Neil Young (San Francisco State), opera tenor Placido Domingo Placido Domingo and Broadway star Carol Channing Carol Channin (Cal State Stanislaus), and sitar player Ravi Shankar Ravi Shankar (Cal State San Marcos).
Haggard is the first country music star to receive the award, and the 10th overall recipient from CSUB.
With his sister Lillian watching — as the Bakersfield High School registrar, she once turned him in to the school’s truancy officer in a vain attempt to get him on track — Haggard stepped to the podium.
“On behalf of those with the Bakersfield Sound, we appreciate this,” said Haggard. “Thank you. It’s nice to be noticed.”
Then, while the audience was distracted by the imminent recitation of the graduates’ names, Haggard slipped out the back, just as he had done so many times before, so many years ago.
Editorial Page Editor Robert Price, a Bakersfield Sound expert, contributed to this story.