David Reese might have made a stink about the threadbare furniture in his office at Bakersfield High School long ago, but he didn't bother. When you spend more time out, under an open sky, than in, beneath acoustic ceiling tile, what's so important about a frayed chair cushion or two?
Reese had people to see, places to go, lines to rehearse, stunts to perform, fights to break up, trophies to hoist. And Reese did all of those things and more for 20 years as the top administrator at Bakersfield's flagship school. Last Thursday, he presided over his 20th and final BHS graduation at Griffith Stadium, the final, official public act of a man who was never very good at sitting still.
"He is the ultimate out-of-the-office principal," government teacher Jeremy Adams told me Friday. "He is a jack-of-all-trades and the ultimate yes person. If you have an idea that will help the kids, the answer is 'yes,' followed by 'how can I help?'"
If Reese was willing to say "yes" to this, he would clearly say "yes" to just about anything: Adams, founder and host of the wildly popular, game-show style history/civics competition known as the Earl Warren Cup, asked Reese to open the 2011 event by delivering the trophy to the Harvey Auditorium stage. The hitch was that Reese would accomplish the task by soaring down from the rafters, 30 feet up, in a harness. "He had to sit in a box for a half-hour, above the stage, with the trophy, waiting," Adams said. "Then, on cue, he swooped in and landed on the stage, the most epic entrance of all time. I don't know if the district liked it, but the kids did — they use (a photo of Reese's giddy descent) as a meme on Twitter. If that's not a good sport ..."
Yes, there's definitely some ham in Reese's makeup. He has acted, danced and sung in six school plays. His first was Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"; drama teacher Jacquelyn Thompson-Mercer gave him the not-insignificant role of Theseus. "It was too much," said Reese, 61. "I didn't have time to rehearse. I had my lines written all up and down my arms."
After that, Reese was never cast as anything more vital to the story than a dancing frog, unless you count the year he was typecast as the uptight high school principal in "Hairspray."
Bakersfield High School is known for many things, most of them good, but for most, sports is what will undoubtedly come to mind first; the school has won eight state football championships and 36 section titles, the most of any school in California. Reese himself was a jock of some note, leading the 1975-76 Foothill High School basketball team, as a 6-foot-5 center, to the valley championship. So when Paul Golla, who coached the Drillers to the 2013 state Division I football title, speaks of Reese's contributions, it's telling that it's not all about the gridiron.
"My favorite memory of him is him holding up the state (football) championship trophy," said Golla, who left the Drillers in February after 14 years as head coach to move across town to Garces. "But what made him special was that he understood that high school wasn't just about sports. It's about choir, and drama, and band, and English, and debate. He was so thrilled with the (2017-18 national champion) virtual business team. He took tremendous pride in all aspects of the high school experience."
Just wind him up and watch him go.
"The thing I'm proudest of having done is hand out over 12,000 diplomas, because that's what we're here for," Reese said. "Try to take these kids as freshmen and help them shape their dreams. In high school, first year, I was a French horn player. So I believed in both worlds. Yeah, we've had a lot of athletic success. But my goodness, the fine arts here are powerful. ... I always prided myself on having more elective programs than any high school in town. And I hope that stays because kids need to find their niche. Being an athlete, that's this world over here, but if they find their niche in gaming, chess club, whatever the case may be, that's what we want."
Reese's niche, other than sports, was history. After playing basketball at Humboldt State, he came home to finish his history degree at Cal State Bakersfield, where he also obtained his teaching credential. He returned to his alma mater, Foothill, to teach social studies and coach basketball. He didn't particularly care for BHS at the time; they seemed to always win (except for Reese's senior year at Foothill, when the Trojans turned the table, Reese is quick to note.)
But a few years later, Reese transferred to BHS, where he worked alongside Ken Hooper. And the school's revered archiving program was born.
Their first project, in 2003, involved research into the World War II internment of local Japanese Americans. Thirty-seven BHS students had been removed from school and dispatched to camps around the western United States.
"Our students realized that a kid who was here in April was gone in May and maybe they didn't get to graduate," Reese said. "And so we started to try to identify any kid who had been here and had to be relocated."
They found 26 families and five actual former students and invited them all to graduation ceremonies.
"Our regular graduates had blue robes, and the Japanese Americans had white robes, and we gave them honorary diplomas. And kids just thought it was so cool to see."
Hooper remembers the day well, and he remembers what Reese said at the podium.
"It's time to reclaim some Drillers," Reese said, pausing to collect himself, "that we've missed."
Reese is also proud to have overseen the most diverse school in the 18-campus Kern High School District.
"I really have to say thank you to the board of trustees because they recognize that most major cities don't have a diverse downtown school like we have," Reese said. "They saw that, they wanted that, and they kept it that way. We've got kids from all of those neighborhoods, rich and poorer. It's a microcosm of the world they're going to live in, and it's where their education goes beyond the textbook."
Reese will miss the fun of being an active principal but his knees won't. He had surgery on one knee a decade ago and he faces a full replacement on the other in August. That'll limit his basketball, dancing and soaring across stages.
He probably won't miss his old, frayed office furniture, though.
Ben Sherley, the school's new, incoming principal, will be getting nice, new stuff.
Hey, David, your old furniture might be available.
"No thanks," he said. "District property."