For nearly 30 years, Dennis Haskins has been recognized for his role as Principal Richard Belding on Saved by the Bell. Now, he’s equally recognized for earning his bachelor’s degree as a 65-year-old.
Since the time he was born, Chattanooga – both the city and the university – has played a big part in Haskins’ life and professional career. To say he bleeds the school colors of navy blue and old gold is an understatement. To say that he might be the most official unofficial ambassador that UTC possesses, well … that’s spot on.
While he is a frequent visitor to UTC and the Chattanooga area, it’s virtually impossible to be on Facebook or Twitter and not see a reference about the university or the Mocs – thanks to Haskins.
Since 1980, Haskins has spent most of his time working his craft in California – with over 90 acting credits to his name. Saved by the Bell might have put him on the map, but his long list of parts includes notable appearances on Mad Men, How I Met Your Mother, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The West Wing, Magnum, P.I. and The Dukes of Hazzard.
But crossing the finish line and receiving his liberal arts degree from UTC in December 2015 might have been his title role.
It would be too easy to sum it up a story about Dennis Haskins with a simple Principal Belding-like “Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey, what is going on here?”
But when Haskins answered the phone from his Southern California home for an extended conversation, the voice and the tone were 100% unmistakable.
“Hey! How are you doing, man? I’m good-good-good–good-good.”
I’d like to start out by asking you about the university. You are so identifiable with this institution. When I say UTC, what does that mean to you?
Dennis Haskins: “It means a great deal to me. I love the school. Chattanooga … it’s funny, when I donated my Saved by the Bell scripts to the school, we were up in the top of the new library, and I was able to look out at the campus through those windows. Over to the right was a building where Dorothy Hackett Ward had her theatre department back in the 1960s. She came to OLPH – Our Lady of Perpetual Health School – looking for two sixth graders to be part of her college production of Pinocchio. She picked me to be Pinocchio’s best friend, Candlewick. For three weeks, I went down after school and rehearsed with college kids. It was exciting. That’s where I fell in love with the theater. And then here I am today – making a living as an actor.
“I continued to look at the campus from the top of the library and saw the old men’s gymnasium, which we tweaked and converted into a theatre department. I had walked on to the basketball team; I looked down, and there was Maclellan Gym to the left. My whole history was right there in front of me.
“I just love the school. I came in to play basketball and was fortunate that Leon Ford let me walk on. Leon Ford actually was my advisor, and he asked me what I liked to do. I told him I always liked theater, so he put me in a theater course. The rest is history.
“This school means a great deal to me. When I walked on, Harold Wilkes was the athletic director. After I played one year – or more accurately I was on the team for one year – he embraced me. He had me come into the athletic department, and I did a lot of mini jobs there. I ended up helping put the Mocs on television for basketball – and was a color commentator on the TV broadcasts.”
It’s often said that faculty can influence a student’s life. Can you talk about faculty or staff at Chattanooga that played a part in your success?
“Can faculty influence a student’s life? That’s a no-brainer. If you go into a class and you have a great teacher, you want to learn and you’ll work hard for them. There was a guy named Bruce Storey; at that point I was the social director for my fraternity, Kappa Sigma. One day, I walked into the Student Center and I wanted to get involved with the school’s entertainment committee. I walked up to Bruce Storey and asked if I could volunteer. ‘Absolutely. Come on in,’ he said.
“After six months on the entertainment committee, the guy who was the entertainment chairman left. Bruce said to me, ‘Would you like to be the entertainment chairman?’ Of course, I said yes. Because of that, I ended up being involved in the music business for 10 years. I got to see artists on the way up. They would send me to conventions to book talent to come and play at the school. And the first convention I went to – it was a national convention in Cincinnati – there were three acts on the main showcase that performed – Parliament Funkadelic, Tony Orlando and Dawn, and Earth, Wind and Fire. They were all just starting out. On a smaller stage, there was a guy in a white tuxedo and tails doing Tom Jones impressions – and he did a song called Piano Man. It was Billy Joel. So I got to be involved in that industry on behalf of the school, bringing talent back to the university. That literally changed my life.”
Let’s talk about going back in time and getting your degree. First off, what caused you to not finish up in the first place? And after all these years, what prompted you to come back and earn your degree?
“As we were talking about faculty influencing you in a positive way, they can also affect you in a negative way,” he said with a laugh. “I had trouble with foreign languages. I tried French. I tried German. It was a requirement as a liberal arts major to have a foreign language, and it was discouraging for me. Because I was the entertainment chairman, I was around campus for more than four years. I was a fifth-year senior auditioning for shows, but the new head of the theatre department wouldn’t give me any parts. I won’t call him out by name, but this guy said to me, ‘You had your turn.’ In other words, I wasn’t welcome anymore. So I tucked my tail between my legs and left and just kind of faded into the wood work.
“Years later, I started missing the fact that I didn’t have a degree. I reached out to Jim Lewis – who had been the head of the theatre department – and he said, ‘Listen, you’ve done plenty for your senior experience. We should credit you that. But you still have to get your foreign language.’
“A couple years ago, I was back in Chattanooga and I was in the library – when I started the process of donating my Saved by the Bell scripts to the school – and I was talking to Theresa Liedtka (Dean of the UTC Library) and Mary Ollie Newman (Director of Development and Underwriting for WUTC). I was talking about still having that one regret – that I was so close to my degree. I told them about just needing the foreign language. And then I was told, ‘We do things different now. Let us look into it.’
“Long story short, Gretchen Potts, the head of the extended studies program, and Sandy Zitkus in the records office started looking at everything I’ve done. Steve Ray, the head of the theatre department, said to send him a list of all the things I had done. I have written a couple of books, and I had all this acting experience. Steve Ray said this should easily cover all my senior experience. And then he said, ‘We checked into the foreign language requirement. There are other departments within the school that have waived that requirement – and some have waived it a lot. We never have, but I don’t see why not. So we’re going to do what other people have done for other students.’ That’s how I got my degree – through my continued work in my major field of acting. He told me, ‘I want you to know that your course might be a little different than other people, but you’ve done things that other people haven’t done. So you have earned your degree.’
“It bothered me a lot – not having a degree – because I love this school. I kept thinking about it. It didn’t affect the pursuit of my career, because acting is constantly about auditions and getting parts and constantly performing with different people. I’ve had some great experiences in that. But personally, I love this school so much, and the rest of my class – the friends I hung around with – they all did graduate and got their degrees.
“For me, I’ve never been one to give up short of getting something that I pursued or wanted to do. I’ve just always kept going and kept driving. But this was the one thing that I had fallen short of my goal on. It was important to me to finish it. I just kept trying to find a way.
“Forty years later, I found a way. And when you least expect it, things happen. It came out of a casual conversation. Altruistically, giving these scripts back … it came back to me.
“So (in December 2015) I went back and walked and put on a cap and gown. It was an amazing experience. Then not too long after that, I got my class ring. It’s not just about how cool the ring is, it’s about what it represents – the journey. And I’ve got my cap and gown hanging up in the hallway so I can see it. That ought to tell you something. It was an amazing turn of events. That’s a chapter closed, right?”
You can look at it as a chapter closed or a chapter opened, right?
“It’s like a friend of mine said … now that you have a college degree, good luck finding work.”
You’ve now had time to let it sink in. Let’s face it, you weren’t exactly a 22-year-old walking across the stage. What was it like to actually hear your name get called?
“I still don’t know how to describe how good that felt. It was really important that I didn’t do this for publicity. I did this because it was a lifelong pursuit. I didn’t want to take away from any of the other students. I didn’t want it to be about me. I wanted it to be about the experience of achieving a goal – no matter how long it took, and never giving up.
“To be in that hallway underneath the gymnasium … to be standing there at my spot … I walked in, and these two students said, ‘You’re right here, Mr. B.’ They knew where my space was.
“Steve Ray, the head of the theater and speech department, was the person calling out the names. I heard ‘Dennis Haskins,’ and I just shook his hand and gave him a hug. I continued across the stage, and somebody actually had queued up the Saved by the Bell theme song – which was funny. I continued walking, and there was the chancellor, Steve Angle. I told him, ‘I didn’t ask them to play that.’ He laughed at me and said, ‘I did.’ I gave him a hug.
“I was just walking on Cloud Nine. Everybody was so kind to me. Then after the fact, a lot of news organizations picked it up – because the fictional principal was actually graduating.”
Speaking of Saved by the Bell, you managed to work Chattanooga into the series. Please tell me how you that all started.
“When Mack McCarthy’s basketball team went to the Sweet Sixteen (in the NCAA tournament) in 1997, they put out a video about their journey – and Mack asked me to do the introduction for it. I was on set at Saved by the Bell, and I did the introduction from there. Behind me was a picture of a basketball team in Mr. Belding’s office; every year, I put up a new one. No one realized that it changed every year, because I put up the current picture of the UTC basketball team. It didn’t say Chattanooga on the picture, but it was the Mocs. The Mocs were on the set with me every show. Then, at the very end when Saved by the Bell: The New Class was ending, they had Mr. Belding moving on from being the principal at Bayside High School to becoming the dean of students at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. So we worked Chattanooga in there a lot.”
If I remember correctly, you also managed to work in a Mocs reference when you appeared on Magnum, P.I. How did you pull that one off?
“Yes, when I did Magnum, P.I., I did it wearing a Mocs hat. They said I needed to wear a baseball cap, so I showed up and asked if I could wear this one. They asked, ‘What does that stand for? What’s a Moc?’ I told them it could be a number of things – from a water moccasin to an Indian moccasin. I also said it was more than that – it was my school – so they let me wear it. I also wore the hat when I was in Amazing Stories – the show that Steven Spielberg did. I might have been 2,000 miles away from home, but I kept home with me through my connections to Chattanooga and the school.”
The way you speak, it sounds like you’re pretty cool with being an ambassador for the university.
“Everything I know and have learned started in Chattanooga. I was helped every step of the way by somebody – from being reached out to in grade school … to being part of the athletic department and being allowed to pursue the TV broadcasts … to getting the opportunities I had starting out in the music industry. They always supported me.
“This is such a wonderful place. I love this school. The school is not about buildings; it’s about the people in the buildings. And the people in those buildings are really good people. People like Terry Denniston in the chancellor’s office … she’s been there a long time and loves the school. People like Jayne Holder in the development office … she loves the school. These are people who went there and grew up there and are alumni who now work there. And Fred Obear, the former chancellor … talk about an ambassador for the school. To this day, he is still at all the basketball games and all the events he can go to in supporting the school. He’s the reason I gave my scripts to the school.
“I was at a basketball game about four years ago, and I always say hello to Dr. Obear. He’s such a wonderful man. He told me they were building this beautiful new library, and that it’s going to be great. And I said, ‘Do you think they might want my scripts? For some reason, I saved them all.’ And he said, ‘I think they might. Let me ask.’ Having a casual conversation with Dr. Obear, talking about how much he loved the school … that’s how it all started.
“It actually took a couple years for me to donate the scripts – I had a hard time letting go of them – but I did. And now my scripts are in the Taj Mahal of libraries. They’re a permanent part of the library. You can actually go and look at the physical scripts I had.”
Your love of the school and of the city really comes across.
“The fact that I’m from Chattanooga – and I was not the best in my class, but I loved being in my class – that love of what I was doing and the passion for what I was doing kept me going. As long as you care and give everything you’ve got, good things will happen.
“I just love this university, and I continue to support the athletic department and the school in general. I know people see a lot on Facebook and in my tweets about UTC – and all the athletic programs. I just love my connection to this school.
“I’m still in touch with a lot of people from Chattanooga. I don’t get back as much as I used to because most of my family is gone. I still have friends there and my heart’s still there. If somebody asks me where my home is, I’ll tell them, ‘That’s funny. I’ve been visiting Los Angeles since 1980. But my home and my heart are in Chattanooga.’ I’ve been here longer than I’ve been in Chattanooga, but the most important years of my life – high school, college – were in Chattanooga. You know what I mean … the blue and the gold.”