“I HAVE LOVED THIS JOB and will to the last day of school,” says Bruce Graham, the Music Man of King City—pictured above with his jazz band at King City High—who will retire this spring after more than four decades teaching and making music in the public schools of the town that in the 1880s established a railway terminal built to take produce from southern Salinas Valley to Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.
“It’ll be 43 years that I’ve been a teacher,” Graham says. (I remember first meeting him when he looked like the photo, left.) He started in 1972 at King City Elementary, “teaching singing, band and choir.” When the district opened Del Rey Elementary, in the ‘80s, with Carolyn McCombs as principal, Graham participated in an annual series of all- school musicals, in addition to “doing band and all that stuff.” Describing McCombs as “pro music and pro arts, we’d have certain classes write their own songs. We’d use the chord progression of Louis, Louis and they’d provide the words. The subject matter could be anything. One year we did a musical about science. It was really fun.” Graham recalls doing six or seven original musicals at Del Rey. “With a full complement we’d have 400 kids in them.”
Graham’s predecessor as King City’s popular Music Man was Leon Olson, who taught at King City High. “He’d been there forever.” But when Graham arrived he was dismayed at how unprepared the younger kids were. “I called up Leon. I said these kids don’t know anything,” Graham complained. “He was really helpful. He and I were as different as night and day, but he was great.” Then Olson fell ill and was forced to retire early, leaving “a series of subs.” Subsequently, Olson recovered, but having taken disability leave he was no longer eligible to return to his previous duties there. “So he went to work at Greenfield Elementary.” (At c. 16,000 population, fast-growing Greenfield, about ten miles north, has now overtaken King City’s c. 13,000.)
After 1978, when California’s Proposition 13 tax law was passed, school districts all over the state felt forced to cut arts programs in order to the balance their newly-straitened budgets. “I was in the elementary district—[King City Union School District]—and they discussed letting me go,” Graham explains. But there was an uproar in the community. “The superintendent called me and offered me a job teaching English. “I said I wouldn’t do it. I think he thought I was leveraging community support, because I played a lot of dances, weddings and funerals in town. But I hadn’t done anything actually.”
“I remember going with the high school in 1996.” King City High, now, along with Greenfield High, is in its own South Monterey County Joint Union High School District under state governance. “The high school kept me on part time. I was the least expensive teacher on the faculty because of a salary cap in going from the elementary to the high school district. I had 180 students in three class periods.” Graham also took up a middle school band supported by the resources of Sol Treasures, an independent nonprofit dedicated to ‘awaken and encourage appreciation and passion for the arts in people of all ages in South Monterey County and provide a home for creative and inspiring opportunities to unify the community through art and culture.’
After the No Child Left Behind act, the KC Union district did shut down the music program, “two years after I left, seven or eight years ago, when testing became more important. I found myself trying to decide what I was going to do.”
Graham was born in Pasadena and grew up in Anaheim. “My mom was a nursing student at Huntington Hospital. She was pregnant but pretended she wasn’t,” he explains. “My dad’s dad owned property next to what would become Disneyland.” While he had grown up in the Mormon Church, much less been to Utah, it had not figured prominently in his life.
By a mysterious “accident” he was invited by the director of the orchestra at Brigham Young University to apply for a scholarship. “Singing in a church choir and playing trumpet hardly convinced me.” Nevertheless, he submitted the requested paperwork, agreed to an entrance audition, and was a no-show. “So the guy told me to record myself playing.” Suddenly, he was awarded a scholarship. But he didn’t get accepted because “my grades weren’t good enough.” He had to make up the deficiencies at summer school and got in by the skin of his teeth. “My first year I thought I was cooler than I actually was.” It was at BYU that Graham met his future wife, Suzette Machoian, who had converted to the faith at age 16. They were married in 1970.
Once out of school, “I found there were no jobs in music,” Graham says. “I wanted to move back to Anaheim.” He put his name in “one of those” placement programs. “I got a call from King City, Lompoc and a school district in Colorado that wanted a band teacher who could also teach auto shop and wrestling.” Only one offer made sense.
As a music educator, Graham has maintained skill in all the wind instruments and can guide players of string instruments. He also plays guitar and piano. His career in King City has had its ups and downs, thanks to budgetary and policy issues. At times he even volunteered his time to keep music going while working to accommodate all the school demands he had taken on, not least going on tour with a jazz band to Reno over a five year period. “I stopped doing the tours in 1999 when the Basic Vegetables onion plant went on strike. That hurt.”
He remembers working one year at all those places, high school, middle school and the last of the elementary all-school musicals. “It about killed me.” He also juggled the administrators of each district who both wanted him full time but didn’t have the wherewithal to provide full time compensation. When he visited the proposed site for the Chalone Peaks Middle School, which opened in 2007, he noticed there was no band room in the plans.
In retirement, Bruce and Suzette are thinking seriously about missionary work. “She is half Armenian,” he says, and that country holds personal appeal for them. Then, they plan to settle in Utah where they have relatives, including one son who is a filmmaker, to say nothing of health care at hand as anyone of retirement age will appreciate.
The timing for such moves is good. In 2012 the new King City Arts Magnet Elementary opened and, Graham is thrilled to say, “Music has come back. There are three fine music teachers, two vocal teachers and Ava Ettinger who teaches strings. It’s a great feeling to know that all your work has survived and is looking at a promising future.”