The questions: Who is the man with the question mark suit and what is he doing spending so much time at the campus Starbucks?
The answers: He’s Matthew Lesko, the longtime grants researcher made popular by colorful late-night infomercials in which he pitches his free money books. He busies himself on his laptop at the coffee shop between Chinese language classes at the Confucius Institute at Mason.
Lesko signed up for two language blocks. His classes begin at noon and six, so he has a lot of downtime between sessions. “I’m either here at Starbucks or the Johnson Center getting my picture taken with students,” he says. “I’m not sure they know who I am. Maybe they recognize me as that guy from late-night TV.” It couldn’t be the suit, nah.
He gives a quick and hearty laugh, something he does frequently during a conversation. Today, he’s dressed in his green ?-mark suit (he has 15 or 16 of them) and a soft bowtie; he wears glasses with a striking, colorful hand-painted frame. His silver hair is gelled in a hip style for a guy who is age “68 or something like that.”
Lesko, who commutes from Kensington, Maryland, has made a career, as he puts it, “getting (stuff) for free and selling it for as much as I can get.” In pre-Internet days he compiled books on how to apply for grants that, in effect, had the U.S. government paying for just about anything you cared to do. Now, his business is entirely online.
This time, he’s gone one better with the non-credit Chinese language courses. The Confucius Institute is funded by the People’s Republic of China, with the purpose of promoting Chinese culture and language.
“So it’s like a grant from the Chinese government paying for my classes, and I couldn’t believe it,” Lesko says, delighted again at the idea. But then he grows suddenly serious.
“Listen,” he says, “what really [ticks] me off is I’m taking a Chinese course at a major university with the best people in the world and anyone can do it—but they’re not. I’m from Maryland and I’m doing it,” he says, lightly pounding the table for emphasis. “Why isn’t that classroom chock full of people like me? It’s government subsidized—a normal class would be like $2,000—the teachers are phenomenal, the people in the class are wonderful and sweet, and what could be more important than learning about China?
“So why isn’t that room chock full of people? I just don’t get it.”
Well, maybe because learning Chinese is hard? And that’s the point, he says.
Lesko, overweight in his younger days, is tall and lean and runs six miles a day. But he had the idea that while his body was training, his brain wasn’t getting a workout.
“I exercise a lot but I want to work for 30 more years, so you have to live like you’re their age,” he says, indicating the Mason undergrads at nearby tables. “You have to exercise your mind. But how do you exercise the mind? So I thought, what’s the hardest thing I could do? Learn Chinese!”
He also took a Chinese business course. Of course, as you would.
“He’s very popular with my students,” says his language teacher, Chong Zhang. Apparently, Lesko is just as animated inside the classroom as he is outside it, and his energy level is helpful but not disruptive. “The other students are quiet.” she says. “He helps my younger students ask questions in class.”
“This is such a pleasant campus,” Lesko says. “These young people, they’re where it’s at now. They have a better idea of what the future is than people my age. I think our biggest handicap is whatever success we’ve had; we think we can keep doing it the old way, but it ain’t going to work. These kids, they don’t have luggage, they’re just looking forward, looking for opportunities.
“Their biggest obstacle is us old people getting in the way.”