Friday, June 25th 2010, 8:35 AM
Pete Hamill, the veteran newsman who's covered wars and Presidents, written 16 books and run several newspapers, turned 75 on Thursday.
Saturday, he's getting his high school diploma.
The legendary New York journalist left prestigious Regis High School at 15 to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Why he did so is clear to anyone who read Hamill's “The Drinking Life,” a masterpiece of memoir that captures '40s and '50s Brooklyn as if on celluloid.
One of seven kids of a disabled, alcoholic father and a resilient mother, Hamill envisioned heroes with secret weapons as he drew comics at the kitchen table.
He had his own secret weapon: a laserlike intelligence that got him into the Catholic academy. Trouble was, Hamill was South Slope, Brooklyn, and Regis was Park Avenue, Manhattan. The other kids walked in new oxblood loafers, so Hamill, in his cardboard-lined shoes, went to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yards.
Flash forward many columns, books – and years – later.
“President Clinton had a St. Patrick's Day panel at the White House,” says Jim Buggy, development chief at Regis. ” Jimmy Breslin growled at [Fordham president] Father O'Hare, 'Why don't you give Pete an honorary degree?' Pete said, 'What I really want is my diploma from Regis.' ”
Eventually, they ran the idea up the flagpole and Regis President Father Philip Judge “gave his blessing, if you'll pardon the pun,” Buggy says.
Hamill lives in lower Manhattan these days – on a block with the muscle of old Brooklyn.
Standing on the street, he's surrounded by working stiffs loading fabric and lumber onto trucks. A guy shows Hamill pictures of his kids on a cell phone – a bit redundant, since their faces are tattooed on his arm.
Upstairs in the apartment he shares with his journalist wife Fukiko Aoki, a couple thousand books line the walls.
“Umberto Eco had 30,000 books in his apartment in Milan, and the floors collapsed two stories down,” he says.
Over his desk are original comics by Milt Caniff, who inspired him as a boy. Evidence of lifelong learning is everywhere.
“One of the best days of my life was when I got my first press pass,” he says. “To be a newspaperman is the best education. You go out and talk to some of the most brilliant people in the world.”
Hamill was with Robert F. Kennedy when he was gunned down, and was the last to interview John Lennon. He covered wars from Vietnam to Belfast.
He was at Sugar Ray Robinson's last fight, a loss. “In the dressing room, Miles Davis said, 'Ray, you're packing it in.' That was the end of it,” Hamill says.
When wacky Abe Hirschfeld bought The Post and fired Hamill as editor, he went to the South St. Diner and put out an issue with headlines like “Who is This Nut?” Later, he edited the Daily News.
He dated Jackie Kennedy, Linda Ronstadt and Shirley MacLaine, the first woman to drink at Farrell's after Hamill brought her there – long before he quit drinking 40 years ago.
One thing Hamill hasn't seen: Reality TV. “Why should we care about Kate Gosselin?” he muses.
Are we dumbing down? “Yes!” says the man who'll finally get his diploma.
Does he have a solution?
“Absolutely!” Hamill exults. “School!”