Chapman graduation: Four bluegrass-playing siblings, four bachelor’s degrees, all in one weekend

The Wimberley family is about to pull off something that’s not just truly astounding but also, in theory, mathematically impossible.

All four of the Wimberley children will graduate this weekend from Chapman University. That’s right: Three sons and a daughter will get their bachelor’s degrees.

They aren’t quadruplets. Heck, that would be too easy. In age, they are five years apart.

The eldest, Danielle, is 22. The youngest, Michael, is 17, younger than most graduating high school seniors.

They live with their parents in Orange. But they aren’t homebodies. They have their own bluegrass band. Yes, a professional bluegrass band that creates real music for real money and tours the country in an old RV that they say is held together with duct tape and a lot of love.

Are they grounded? By golly, they are. You don’t figure to get on “The Voice,” or make big bucks, by playing guitar, mandolin, fiddle and banjo and playing instrumentals like “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” or singing songs like “Polka on a Banjo.”

And you certainly stay humble in the age of HBO and Showtime when you reveal your favorite television series is “The Andy Griffith Show.”


All four siblings – Danielle, twins James and Mark, 21, and Michael – sit on the grass in the shade of a big sycamore tree at Chapman and explain how they can, simultaneously, master the lightning-fast picking that bluegrass requires, memorize a catalog of tunes, write a few songs of their own and graduate from a university.

“Well, sleep is out of the question,” Michael, the talker in the group, deadpans. “And eating is out of the question.”

He pauses, adjusts his black sunglasses and gets serious. “I’m not smart. I just had the motivation to realize my dreams.”

Of course, Michael is being modest. You don’t start community college when you’re 13 years old without serious gray matter between your ears.

But he’s also not being coy.

For the Wimberleys, life is about having priorities. Music is big. Earning good grades is bigger. Learning trumps all. Yet it’s faith and family that are both fuel and glue.

Tina Wimberley was a supervising nurse. But as her kids started to progress through elementary school at Calvary Christian School in Santa Ana, mom and dad came to believe that what was best for their children was home-schooling. Tina became their full-time teacher.

The idea was to help the children progress at their own individual pace. Soon, mom and dad discovered they had student rockets.

Danielle was the first to enroll at Santiago Canyon College. The twins, Mark and James, decided to catch up with her and enrolled at 16, juggling high school and college-credit classes. At 13, Michael, the lead singer, realized he needed to double down on school if he was to keep up with his bandmates.

Soon, the boys were taking 19 credits at Santiago Canyon, zooming toward their goal of joining Danielle at Chapman for the last two years of college.

“It’s not for everyone,” Michael says of crunching college. “But we pursued it, we worked hard and we did it.”

Scholarships and students loans helped.

Do they regret skipping prom, high school football games? Mark, the guitarist, allows that they gave up a few things. But they also gained things – like getting to perform bluegrass in front of crowds from coast to coast.


Dad grew up in Texas, mom in California. With a mix of Cuban, Italian and, yes, Texan blood, the boys favor black cowboy boots. Mark sports a Texas belt buckle.

The Orange Plaza is the siblings’ Mayberry. On Sundays, they can be found with their parents at Bethel Baptist Church. Studies and gigs permitting, they have dinner as a family. They live less than 2 miles from Chapman.

They like what they call the “personal atmosphere” on campus.

As we talk, as if on cue, Chancellor Daniele Struppa strolls by with a small group of professors. He knows the students by name, and they exchange a few words in Italian.

A decade ago at Christmas, the kids picked up an old vinyl record by a group called the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, dropped the needle and listened to “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” It was beautiful, complex, exciting. It stirred their soul.

“We have four bodies,” Michael says of their cultural tastes that include John Wayne movies, “and one brain.”

The first gig for the Wimberley Bluegrass Band was May 23, 2008, at Southwest Bluegrass Association SuperJam, a gathering of pickers and grinners, as the musicians call themselves. Michael stood on an apple crate so he could be seen by the crowd.

Over the years, they’veperformed in Virginia; Jefferson, Texas; Pontotoc, Miss.; Mountain View, Ark.; and Nashville, Tenn. They’re booked for five nights in July at the OC Fair.

They have four albums behind them and one album ahead. It’s tentatively called “Traveling,” and they hope to release it before the end of summer.

The album will be a mix of traditional bluegrass and originals.

Mark explains they write most of their songs when they’re on the road, away from the distractions of studying.

A song the group is working on was written by Mark and is called “Chevy Truck and Me.” Some lyrics: “Every time I close my eyes / I need more space for breathin’ / So it’s time to be leavin’.”

But the focus this weekend is education. As Michael (corporate communication), Mark (communication studies), James (math) and Danielle (business administration) receive their diplomas, their biggest fans will be watching – mom, dad and grandma.

Yet like that Chevy truck in the song, the siblings have several routes before them. There’s the band. And then there are roads more traveled.

Michael will take his law school entrance exams in a few weeks. James has been accepted to graduate school. Mark is looking to public relations. Danielle is considering a career in marketing.

Still, the new song promises a more magical path.

“I’ll leave it all behind while the road signs are gleaming /As long as four wheels and some gasoline / Can take this Chevy truck and me / Far away so this rambler can keep dreaming.”

Contact the writer:

Leave a Reply