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Teen pianist hopes to play his way to college: Eighth-grade boy from Fargo plans to attend prestigious school by raising funds with music

Cole Wills entertains customers at K’s Bakery in Fargo after school with some classical music. The eighth-grader is working to save money to attend engineering classes at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dave Wallis / Forum News Service

FARGO — When Cole Wills sits down at a piano or keyboard, he’s all business.

After all, the 14-year-old has some college-level ka-ching to come up with.

The Carl Ben Eielson eighth-grader wants to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study engineering.

At today’s prices, that’s about $59,000 a year for tuition, room, board and books.

MIT appeals to Wills because of its high reputation in the world of engineering. Wills’ goal is to become a mechanical or civil engineer.

“It’s just an opportunity I’d like to take,” Wills said.

Wills has spent the last eight months tickling the ivories at cafes, restaurants, nursing homes – wherever he can get a gig – playing for tips to bankroll his dream.

He spends a couple of hours daily at K’s, his mother’s bakery and café in Fargo, letting his fingers fly over the keys of an electric keyboard.

On a quiet afternoon last week, the lanky middle-schooler straightens his back and locks his eyes on the sheet music, nimbly navigating sonatas by Beethoven and Mozart.

“I usually go right to it,” he said.

But don’t expect a chatty Billy Joel-type of guy.

“I’m kind of a serious person. I’m not sure I want to be a performer,” he said straight up.

A sign next to the keyboard reads: “Aspiring to go to MIT. Tips would be greatly appreciated.”

His mother, Karen Wills, said that with practicing at home on a piano, his daily two-hour gigs in the bakery and playing at other spots around town, Cole puts in 20 hours or more a week playing.

“When he’s here, I let him play what he feels. I’m not picky,” his mom said.

Cole likes math and science and anything to do with cars. He gets straight A’s in school.

When Cole’s not studying for classes, he reads ACT and SAT college entrance practice test books. On Tuesday, he had six books with him.

ACT scores at MIT average between 32 and 34, he said. The maximum ACT score is a 36.

“I want to do as well as I can,” Cole said.

He started playing the piano in third grade, but the idea of playing his way to college came to him last spring.

Cole designed his own business cards and, by August, had his first play-for-pay gig at the River Pointe senior community in Moorhead, Minn.

Karen Wills said Cole quickly learned that when you’re the only performer, 35 or 40 minutes is a lot of time to fill.

“It’s shocking how much work goes in it for him,” she said.

But he adapted.

Now, Cole said, playing a few hours at Sarello’s restaurant in Moorhead is “pretty easy.”

At K’s last week, Pat McCabe and Donna Lewis enjoyed rhubarb pie and coffee while listening to Cole

“It’s a nice addition,” McCabe said.

Lewis, a retired teacher, has a son who is a classical musician in Chicago.

“I’m partial to this,” said Lewis, adding that she saw Cole’s sign.

“Good for him!” she said.

While MIT is Cole’s No. 1 choice, he does have other schools in mind.

Princeton University, a private Ivy League school in Princeton, N.J., is his No. 2 choice. The University of Minnesota comes in at No. 3.

Karen Wills is reluctant to say how much money her son has raised, but she said people are very supportive of Cole’s dream.

“You’d be surprised at how incredibly encouraging and kind people are,” she said. “Sometimes I’m so absolutely shocked at how generous people are. We just hope it keeps going the way it’s going.”

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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