In September 1990, one would have been hard-pressed to have found an employee in the Abilene ISD with a tougher task than the one Terry Graham undertook in her first year at Taylor Elementary School.

That was the year she was hired to replace legendary Taylor choir director Peggy Drennan, who retired at the end of the 1989-90 school year after 27 years at the helm. During those 27 years, the choir performed for political dignitaries and crowds of all sizes, all with Drennan’s flair, and while wearing white long-sleeve shirts, white belts, white shoes, white jeans, and red vests with fringe cut into the bottom.

The Taylor Choir sang the school song at each gig, and no performance was complete without another rendition of “Long Tall Texan.”

In short, Graham was taking over for an icon in the Taylor community.

“I remember in November 1990, one of my students, Kate Pearson (now Abilene High School librarian Kate Stover) raised her hand at the end of class one day and asked, ‘When is Mrs. Drennan coming back?’ ” Graham recalled. “I thought to myself, ‘Oh, my goodness, they all think I’m a substitute.’ But I just told her that Mrs. Drennan had retired and was now teaching at ACU and she wasn’t coming back to Taylor and that I was the new teacher. She just said, ‘OK’ and went back to what she was doing.

“But Peggy Drennan was great to me,” said Graham of her mentor, who sadly passed away in 2020 at the age of 83. “She didn’t come to anything we did for a while to give me time to grow and get comfortable. The parents were great, and they accepted me, even though I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. But Peggy was always available if I called and had a question. But I’m forever grateful for the way the teachers and parents accepted me and encouraged me because it’s hard to follow someone who had been here for so long and done so many great things.”

Now Graham has outlasted Drennan’s tenure by five years and has developed a program of her own. However, she’s also kept many of the traditions that have always made the Taylor choir special.

“This school is everything I ever dreamed about when I got into teaching,” she said. “I grew up in a small town (Ballinger) and I loved it. I like the small-town feel, and that’s what Taylor has been for 32 years. This school and the school community took me in and loved me when Peggy retired. This school is a community of its own, and people are loyal to it and loyal to the traditions that we have in this choir and at this school. I love the traditions; I consider myself the keeper of the traditions. Some people might get tired of them, but I love the traditions. Those things matter to the people at Taylor.”

Graham also matters to the people at Taylor and across the district. It’s for that reason, as well as her love of teaching music and helping every student “find their voice,” as she says, that Graham was honored on April 27 as the Edwin and Agnes Jennings Teaching Excellence TLC Elementary Teacher of the Year in the Abilene ISD by the Abilene Education Foundation. She will now represent AISD in the Texas Teacher of the Year competition at the elementary level. The first step in that is the Region XIV Elementary Teacher of the Year competition, and a  win there would send Graham on to the statewide competition.

“It just didn’t occur to me that a fine arts person would be selected to win that award,” Graham said of her reaction to being selected as Elementary Teacher of the Year. “I was sitting at our table talking to (Taylor Principal) Leslye Roberts and asking her if she was going to go back to campus after the dinner when she saw something on the video. She looked at me and said, ‘That’s our school … it’s you!’ I’m excited that they appreciated fine arts. I’ve taught in a regular classroom when I first started teaching and now music for the last 32 years, and I believe what we do in fine arts is very important.”

Roberts said it’s not hard to believe that Graham would be the recipient of this year’s award. She said Graham is one of the most popular teachers on the Taylor campus and is a big part of the fabric of the Taylor community.

“Mrs. Graham is a vital part of the success at Taylor Elementary School,” Roberts said. “Her desire to serve the campus and its students is noticed by all, and she does so with a smile on her face and gives all that she can give to everything she does. She is a dedicated leader on this campus, always volunteering for committees or helping colleagues when needed. As one staff member told me recently, ‘She’s a team player and more than carries her weight on this campus.’ ”

Graham’s love for music came early as she and her sister were gifted a piano for Christmas when they were in the third grade. And while she didn’t ask for it – nor for the lessons that came with the piano – she’s forever grateful that the piano and the music that followed made their way into her life.

“I eventually loved it,” Graham said. “It made my sister mad because she never got her turn to play. I was on it constantly.”

Despite not growing up wanting to teach, Graham eventually made her way into the profession, first as an English teacher for three years. Along the way, she developed her mission: that every child has a voice, and every child needs someone to help them find that voice.

“And I don’t mean just their singing voice,” Graham said. “They need to find their place. They need to find where they belong and where they feel at home. They need to find that place where they shine; to be the star at a particular time in their lives. This place (Taylor, and, in particular, her choir room) is my happy place. This is as much my home as my real home. This place has rescued me more times than I can count.”

Graham found her voice at Taylor, and she’s not planning on giving up that position anytime soon.

“It will be hard to leave this place, but I’ve got a while to go,” she said. “I still love it. I’ve still got the energy to do it. I still love to get up and come here in the morning and work with these kids.”

Besides, there’s another program to plan. Another group that needs to learn the ins and outs of music theory and rhythm. Another group to teach the school song. And another “Long Tall Texan” to audition. The tradition is in the right hands.