FARGO — A great deal has changed since Mark Preston first sat in a classroom at North Dakota State University.
At age 65, his brain doesn’t absorb information quite as well as it did in his 20s.
“It’s a lot more complicated than I expected it to be, but it's good. Really good,” he said.
Preston received his first degree from NDSU in architecture in 1977.
This fall he’s a freshman again, in what may seem a dramatically different field of study — music.
And a whole lot has happened between then and now.
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Preston had a long, successful career as an architect but took a hiatus to care for his ailing wife, and then his aging parents, until their deaths.
After having time to regroup and reflect, he was drawn back to Fargo and to music.
In addition to his classroom studies, Preston is back to singing on the NDSU Concert Choir, just as he did in the mid-70s when Jo Ann Miller was a fellow choir member.
Miller, director of Choral Activities at NDSU’s Challey School of Music and conductor of the Concert Choir, is now Preston’s instructor.
“He just has really jumped in with both feet, and so the kids accepted him completely from the very first day,” Miller said.
Ties between architecture and music
As an architect, Preston went from building “cornfield schools” in western North Dakota during an oil boom to building casinos and five-star hotels in Las Vegas.
The latter is where he spent the bulk of his career, working for MGM Resorts, he said.
Another job brought him overseas to Moscow, while his closest job to this area was working on Ralph Engelstad Arena in Thief River Falls, Minn., dubbed the “little Ralph” after its bigger sibling hockey arena in Grand Forks.
He set it all aside, however, when it came time to tend to ill family members, one after the other, over a ten year span.
“There’s some pretty deep life lessons that you learn during a decade of direct caregiving and, you know, it takes a while to sort it all out,” Preston said.
The Grand Forks native began thinking about returning to his home state.
He also thought about returning to his first love — music — which has parallels to architecture.
“They're both based on mathematical ideas, whether we realize it or not,” Preston said.
Just another student
Though Miller asks Preston to call her Jo Ann, he insists on something more formal in front of the choir.
“She's going to be Dr. Miller for the next four years,” he said.
Preston was worried, at first, about how other students and choir members might perceive him, because he’s old enough to be a grandfather to them.
“I could imagine some of them thinking, ‘Okay, what's this old guy really doing here?’” he said with a laugh.
But those fears quickly faded after students like Maia Jackson, a sophomore, embraced him as one of their own.
“We try to make him feel welcome in that way because we don't want his age to be like a weird thing, because it's not,” Jackson said.
Preston is even part of a Snapchat group, where the music students troubleshoot their homework.
Miller said Preston is taking his music education seriously, but seems to be loving it, too.
“He makes sure that he lets me know how much he's enjoying every single day,” she said.
A choral writing career
The Reineke Fine Arts Center, where Preston’s classes and choir rehearsals are held, was just being built during his first go-around on campus.
“Now it’s a 40-year-old building,” he said.
When he came back to NDSU last summer to see if he could “just take a few classes,” he and his advisers together determined it would be best to get immersed in the program.
What he thought might be “fun and easy” is turning out to be quite complex, he said, especially a music theory and analysis class.
“Basically, you take pieces of music and just tear them apart,” he said.
Preston hopes it will all lead to a career in writing and arranging choral music.
He hopes to receive a Bachelor of Science degree in Music in 2023, a full 46 years after obtaining his first degree.
“It's been so affirming that… you can follow your dream and it's never too late,” he said.