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Merle Haggard finally gets that high school diploma

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Sixty years later, Lillian Haggard Rea is finally off the hook.

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.

"But I was only there nine days," Haggard replied, pleased but seemingly mystified.

"Well, once a Driller, always Driller," Reese repeated, driving home the significance of "once."

And where was Lillian Haggard Rea on this auspicious day? Home. No one had thought to tell her about it.

"He's kind old for that diploma," she said, reached at home by phone. "But I'm very happy with his life. It's much richer than people know. He has personally paid quite a price for his indiscretions."

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.

Reese, asked to evaluate Hemingway's persistence on a scale of 1 to 10, awarded him a 91/2.

Few seemed bothered by the fact that Haggard received his two academic awards out of order. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from Cal Sate Bakersfield's School of Arts and Humanities in June 2013.

There's precedence for this sort of thing, Reese noted.

"Frank Gifford was in the Pro Football Hall of Fame before he was in the Driller Hall of Fame," the principal said.

Haggard can be excused for having soured on school. He'd been happy enough as an eighth-grader at Standard School in Oildale. But one morning, a few weeks before his class was to graduate, the school's chorus teacher was late for class.

Haggard, always full of mischief, called the class to order, and, with a grand sweep of his arms, began directing them through one of their songs, mimicking the teacher's distinctive style of conducting.

The teacher, naturally, walked right in on this raucous scene.

Such cheekiness might have drawn a laugh from a good-natured teacher, or detention from an ill-natured teacher, but this particular teacher recommended expulsion. The principal agreed. Haggard was forced to move in with his aunt in Lamont and finish at Mountain View School.

The bitter taste of injustice was still sour in his mouth when Haggard started at Bakersfield High School the next fall. His head was even more full of music by this time, and he neglected to attend many of his classes that first week.

Lillian spoke to a reporter about her brother's brief stay at BHS, in a 2007 interview.

"He couldn't focus on school," she said. "He kept cutting class. He had a pass for the railroad because our dad had worked for the Santa Fe, but he preferred hopping freights because it was more fun."

Haggard's counselor, Fred Robinson, could see what was happening, too, and he and Lillian were determined to step in before things got out of hand. "Fred came over and said, 'What do you think about having him hauled off to spend the weekend in juvvy?," Lillian recalled him saying. "'Think that might straighten him up?' "I agreed it might, and that's what we did.

"But Merle didn't think it was fair -- the punishment didn't fit the crime," she said. "So he got out of there the first day, just walked out. And that was the start of it."

Lillian felt so bad about it she didn't get around to telling her younger brother about her role in his first incarceration for years. "I felt guilty for having said yes to this. He was never really an evil person. He was just a troubled kid."

From that point on, Merle was incorrigible. He'd run away from home, come back whenever he felt like it (or was hauled back), then run away again. He'd take any job he could find -- pitching hay, sacking up potatoes, roughnecking in the oil fields. His mother, Flossie, desperate to straighten her son out, put him in one juvenile detention center after another, but few could hold him.

Merle seemed like a boy who couldn't grow up fast enough.

It got worse before it got better. Merle, convicted of burglary, went to San Quentin State Prison in 1958.

His sobering stay of just under two years got Haggard's attention. Freed in 1960, and redeemed by his music, Haggard stayed out of trouble from that point forward.

His astounding succession of No. 1 hits throughout the 1960s and early 1970s cemented his status as one of the industry's greatest performers.

The plaudits continue into Haggard's eighth decade.

He was honored for lifetime achievement as an artist by Kennedy Center Honors in December 2010 and more recently was recognized by the Nashville-based television network CMT as "Artist of a Lifetime."

Thanks to an old grade school classmate, he now adds one more honor.

"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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