Love of music brings Mark Briguglio back to college, almost 50 years after he started, to earn degree
It wasn’t as though 68-year-old Mark Briguglio had an easy time blending in among the mostly 20-something students who comprise University Singers, the 45-voice auditioned concert choir training and performing at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
But Briguglio hadn’t necessarily stood out either, regardless of the gray hair and beard on his head and the wrinkles under his eyes.
“The nature of choir is that everybody is up on the risers singing together,” said Jim Henry, an associate professor of music and UMSL’s director of choral studies. “We rarely get to hear everybody sing just by themselves.”
Henry likes to hold what he calls “Talent Show Friday,” where he asks individual students to take a turn showing off some of their skills as a way of letting other students get to know them.
Early in the spring semester of 2020, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Henry called on Briguglio to sing a solo, and his classmates in the Whitaker Room at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center weren’t expecting what came next.
“They had no idea that this huge operatic tenor voice was in this guy, and the moment he opened his mouth to sing, their jaws fell on the floor,” Henry said. “There was this resounding applause when he got finished.”
Briguglio’s voice has been capturing the attention of and delighting audiences for more than 50 years, and in 1972, it won him a scholarship to study at the St. Louis Institute of Music, which at the time, was housed at Maryville University. Back then, he had dreams of becoming a professional singer, as two of his sisters both did, only life got in the way.
Almost five decades later, Briguglio is back pursuing the college degree he never really gave up wanting. He’s on track to graduate this December with a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, focusing on music and also psychology.
“I’ve always wanted to go back to school,” he said. “I thought I would go back here and become a great singer.”
He’s become more clear-eyed about his professional prospects, but he would like to share his love of song while providing music therapy to military veterans through the VA St. Louis Health Care System.
“Music is inside of me,” Briguglio said. “It’s always been there. It’s important to get it out and share it.”
Sidetracked from singing
Briguglio can’t exactly remember when he started singing.
“I guess about 3 or 4 months before I was born,” he said.
He was 15 when he was invited to sing the national anthem at the governor’s inaugural ball in Oklahoma, a performance his uncle, then an executive at Texaco, helped arrange.
Briguglio enthusiastically accepted that scholarship offer to the St. Louis Institute of Music three years later, believing it could lead him to a career as a singer. But a year after he enrolled in college, he dropped out to join the United States Marine Corps amid an unpopular war in Vietnam.
He has vivid memories of that turbulent time, with the negative reactions that followed him whenever he and the other members of his unit were seen with their uniforms on in public.
Briguglio wasn’t sent overseas but rather to California, near La Casa Pacifica, President Richard Nixon’s “Western White House” in San Clemente. He and his unit accompanied Nixon’s motorcade whenever the president traveled in the area.
To keep busy the rest of the time, Briguglio would often get called to sing the national anthem at government events nearby.
He was still stationed near Los Angeles in 1975 as efforts were underway to prepare for the nation’s Bicentennial Celebration, and he recalls sometimes singing the national anthem two times a day at various fundraisers throughout Southern California.
After completing four years of active duty and during two more in the Marine Corps Reserve, Briguglio still intended to go back to school to finish his degree. He completed three semesters of classes at Jefferson College before dropping out for the second time.
Instead of singing, he went to work full-time in his family’s other “business,” doing asbestos work like his father and uncle.
Briguglio spent about 10 years putting the heat-resistant mineral once widely used in insulation into building projects as a union worker until the mid 1980s and another 10 working to remove it as the health risks associated with it were better understood.
In 1994, he started his own consulting business to oversee asbestos abatement projects in buildings across the Midwest.
Never too late
Briguglio retired in 2014 and spent a couple of years, as he describes it, “bumming around,” fishing with his friends and playing as often he could with his seven grandchildren.
His love of music remained strong throughout the years as he sang at weddings, participated in community theater productions and also sang the national anthem for veterans groups across the country.
He kept feeling a pull back to college and the chance to earn his degree.
In 2018, he finally let it take him to UMSL. It didn’t hurt that the campus was only 3 miles from his house, and he liked what he learned about the music department when researching the university. UMSL offered financial aid opportunities to assist him with the cost of tuition.
After being admitted, he auditioned for Henry and his colleagues.
“It is unusual to see somebody in their 60s walk in, but you know, also, UMSL does have a lot of nontraditional students,” Henry said. “He may have been one of the older students we’ve had walk in, but he has an amazing voice. It’s big and powerful.”
They didn’t hesitate to accept him to be part of University Singers.
“It doesn’t matter to us how old somebody is,” Henry said. “If they can do the job and they’re passionate about it, we’re happy to have them. It was clear, regardless of his age, that this is a guy who really wants to do this and is really passionate about it. When a student like that walks in, you know you’re going to have somebody who’s going care about this and work hard.”
That’s not to say Briguglio didn’t have some hesitation and second thoughts about whether he should be going back to school and whether he’d be able to see it through to the end.
“It’s harder than I thought it would be,” Briguglio said. “But the professors are better than I thought they’d be. It’s a great experience. I have nothing bad I could say about it. Everybody has been just wonderful.
He’s persevered and discovered some interests he didn’t know he had, including psychology and creative writing. He’s minoring in the former and working toward a certificate in the latter.
Briguglio’s enjoyed being around and learning from both faculty members and his fellow students, and Henry said both groups have appreciated Briguglio as well.
“There is no one that I’ve ever taught that is more selfless and empathetic, who really thinks of the other person,” Henry said. “He is so profoundly grateful.”
A new direction
Briguglio still held onto the dream of becoming a professional singer when he started at UMSL, but he said he learned quickly after getting involved in University Singers and participating in opera workshop that he’d need a different path.
“I came to the realization that even if I could have done it 40 years ago, I can’t do it now,” Briguglio said. “I’m good. Don’t get me wrong. But you have to have the whole package – dance, the acting. Just being able to sing is not enough.”
Undeterred, Briguglio started thinking about other ways he could apply his passion for music toward his future. The one that kept appearing at the front of his mind was music therapy, allowing him to combine music and psychology and also work with former soldiers, sailors and Marines.
“I like the idea of helping veterans,” he said. “It’s part of being a Marine.”
Briguglio has had a longstanding connection with the VA, having sang there over the years and done work as a volunteer. In June, he was invited to sing the national anthem and also took part in the ribbon-cutting ceremony as the VA opened five new buildings at the Jefferson Barracks campus.
He has been working with some of his contacts to create an internship opportunity there this semester, and he’s hopeful to continue doing work there after he graduates.
“I don’t know if it’ll be full-time or part-time,” he said. “I don’t know if it’ll be as a volunteer, which I am now, or a paid job. But I’ll do something with that.”
Something that will still also allow him enough time to go fishing and play with his grandchildren.
First, he has to complete one more semester, and he’s already thinking about the sense of accomplishment he’ll have when he does – after four years of hard work and more than 40 waiting to do it.
“I’ll stand proud when I graduate,” he said.
Maybe the only thing that could make it sweeter would be the chance to sing the national anthem at his own commencement ceremony.
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