The year was 1980. America was preparing for a presidential election. The Daily News cost a quarter an issue. And Laurie Lekang joined the staff of Wahpeton’s North Dakota State College of Science as a part-time instrumental music director.
Lekang, now chairman of NDSCS’ performing arts department and director of instrumental music, will lead her final concert for the school at 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 25 in the Bremer Bank Theatre. NDSCS’ Stage Band will be joined by the Wildcat Singers. The event is open to the public and a reception will follow in the theater’s lobby.
“I’m a completely different person than when I started,” Lekang, 61, said. “I feel like I grew up here.”
Leaving NDSCS isn’t regretful for Laurie, but rather, moving onto a whole new stage. As she reflects on the joys of being a longtime band director, like hearing new generations of students play her favorite songs, Lekang insists she’s happy to hand over her baton.
“I had a lovely time here. I loved it, but I think it’s time for a new person,” she said.
Lekang anticipates her family’s relocation to a home on the lake near the Phelps Mill in Otter Tail County, Minnesota. Although she is from Campbell, Minnesota, and attended Minnesota State University Moorhead for college, her ties to NDSCS remain strong. Having siblings, a husband and daughters who are alumni helps.
“It’s just been a big part of my life. And my daughter, Sarah, married the trumpet player she stood beside when they were going to school here, and I have three granddaughters with that couple. Isn’t that fun?” she asked.
Fun is important to Lekang, who describes conducting as a cloud nine experience.
“I want my students to have a great time. I want my audience to love my students as much as I do. Even if it’s my last one, that’s just been my goal. That would be the grand finale to me, if the audience has a good time at the concert,” she said.
Lekang conducts a stage band, which she explains is a “show group, and that’s a lot different than being a musical group.”
“We like to get the audience involved,” she said. “We like to do contemporary, identifiable music. We like to do it in styles that the audience can relate to. It’s a musical experience, but also an entertaining experience.”
The week of April 18, Lekang and her students embarked on a regional tour, visiting schools the band members had attended. These type of school visits have been a tradition for the NDSCS Stage Band, one choir director Bryan Poyzer remembers with fondness from his youth.
“The only thing I knew about NDSCS was Laurie Lekang and Tilford Kroshus,” he said. “They are, in a lot of ways, the public faces of NDSCS.”
Although Poyzer and Lekang only worked together for one school year, he’ll remember it fondly, jokingly wondering “How do you fill Laurie’s shoes?”
“It’s been apparent how much she’s meant to students because a lot of them have reached out to her this past year,” he said. “You’ll see things on Facebook, you’ll hear from students, 20, 25 years back.”
Lekang has fond memories of Kroshus, who spent 30 years with NDSCS and mentored her.
“He was like a big brother to me,” she said. “I could never keep up to his energy and his experience, but it was a good, good thing working with him.”
Reflecting on her long-time dream of teaching college-level music, Lekang admitted she took a risk joining NDSCS as a half-time instructor.
“I just thought it was an opportunity that I didn’t want to miss,” she said.
An associate psychology and human relations professor, Lekang noted the importance of teaching students to get along with one another, especially as they enter the workforce. It’s an easy lesson for the longtime entertainer, who finds wisdom not only from her students and her audience, but from T-shirts.
“There’s one that music educators wear, ‘I get to listen to my favorite band everyday, because it’s the one I teach,’ and that suits me,” she said.
The Bremer Bank Theatre is located at NDSCS’ Stern Cultural Center. Although there is no admission fee for the concert, freewill offerings are encouraged.