He's known to many Alaskans as Hobo Jim, or simply Hobo; when he's invited to an event, he usually brings his guitar and wears his trademark white cowboy hat.

When he arrived at the Carlson Arena Saturday afternoon to be recognized by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, however, Hobo had to trade that headwear in for an honorary hat to go with his honorary doctorate.

The singer-songwriter received one of just three such degrees conferred by UAF this year, out of more than 1,400 diplomas distributed at the university's commencement on Saturday.

The one Hobo received was a doctorate of fine arts, awarded to him under his real name: James Milton Varsos. 

"Most people don't even know my last name," said Varsos, who turned 65 in December. "Milton is my father." 

Hobo said his father was a Greek immigrant who worked hard -- and was proud that three out of four of his children earned college degrees. 

Varsos said he chose "the school of hard knocks" and hitchhiked around the country, learning songs and eventually writing and performing more than 600 songs -- many of them about Alaska.

He said he wishes his parents were still alive, because they would be proud of his degree, bestowed because of his contributions to Alaska as a musician.

Former House Speaker Gail Phillips nominated Varsos for the award. She met him in 1978, when he was a struggling young musician.

"Hobo's music is about Alaska," Phillips wrote in a nominating letter to the university. "He has spread the word about Alaska throughout our state, the United States and the world."

Aside from being a musical ambassador for Alaska, the university also recognized Varsos for his work in Nashville, where his songs have been recorded by famous artists like George Jones, Etta James, Janis Ian and Randy Travis. 

Varsos has performed in Alaska for 45 years, and said Saturday was a day that he thought of his fans. 

"This doctorate here is for everybody," Varsos said. "It's for all of you that supported me, this many years. I appreciate it."

Hobo Jim (right) poses with fellow UAF honorary-doctorate recipients Loretta Afraid of Bear-Cook and Jake Adams on Saturday, May 5, 2018. (Credit: Rhonda McBride/KTVA)

The other two honorary doctorate recipients are Native Americans -- Jacob Adams, a North Slope whaling captain and business leader, and Loretta Afraid of Bear-Cook, who serves on UAF's doctoral degree committee for indigenous studies.

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