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(Enlarge) Retired Col. Frank J. Preston, senior Army instructor for Meade High School's Army Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps, stands alongside Jeffrey Wright, 18, a cadet and senior, and Giancarlo Van Wright, 19, a Meade High graduate who completed JROTC. Preston is retiring June 30 after 23 years of service. (Photo by Lisa R. Rhodes)

Retired Col. Frank J. Preston, senior Army instructor for Meade High School's Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps, recalled a performance evaluation six years ago.

A retired master sergeant who visited JROTC to evaluate Preston for the U.S. Army Cadet Command told the principal that Preston "treats these kids like his own grandchildren. We have to move him."

But Preston stayed on.

"That's probably the greatest compliment he could have given me," Preston said. "I would want a teacher to teach my kids like they were one of his own."

On June 30, after 23 years of service to JROTC, Preston is retiring.

Meade High Principal John Yore said Preston is passionate about JROTC and has maintained a commitment to the cadets over the years.

"Even with his departure, he continues to advocate for the program and wants to maintain a positive connection to Meade and support the future of ROTC and our students," Yore said.

A replacement for Preston is in the process of being hired.

But the program's cadets are sad to see him go.

"[Preston] influenced me to become a better person -- to be a loving person," said Jeffrey West, 18, a cadet and senior who is Preston's personal aide in the program. "He's taught me to reach out to people, especially family."

The mission of JROTC is "to motivate young people to become better citizens," according to the program's website.

Meade High established the program more than 30 years ago. JROTC's goals include developing leadership and critical thinking/creative skills, communication skills, physical fitness, team-building skills and self-motivation.

The program also strives to promote living a drug-free life, an awareness of the military's history and an incentive to graduate and attend an institution of higher education to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

For the past three years, the U.S. Army Cadet Command has named Meade High's JROTC as an honor unit with distinction.

Retired Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Willie, a JROTC Army instructor for four years, said Preston's greatest strength and his legacy are his passion for the program and his concern for the cadets.

"He could have retired years ago," Willie said. "It's about his care for the kids."

Preston took over the leadership of JROTC in 1990. He said his predecessors steered cadets to enlist in the Army although the program is not aimed at recruitment, according to the JROTC website.

"I thought we should be directing them to college," said Preston, who graduated from Hampton University in Virginia and completed its senior ROTC program. "I had gotten my commission from college."

An Army Reserve officer, Preston worked for First Army at Fort Meade for four months in 1979, and returned to the installation two years later. He retired from the Reserves in 1987.

A decade ago, Preston began taking cadets to Hampton University's annual Leadership Summit to encourage them to consider attending the university after graduation.

As a member of the Retired Military Officers Association, Preston also began taking cadets to the organization's biennial National Leadership and Training Conference seven years ago to meet retired military officers who are also business leaders.

Preston said that in addition to steering cadets toward college, he has emphasized the importance of financial planning. His own family has established the Paramount Investment Company, a nonprofit organization to assist family members with grants and loans.

Giancarlo Van Wright, 19, a Meade High graduate and JROTC battalion commander who completed the program this year, said part of Preston's legacy will be his financial advice.

"He encouraged us to save money and put it away," said Van Wright, who started his own savings plan after he began working at a local movie theater two years ago. "Nowadays, we like to splurge. Not everybody has a plan."

Preston also required cadets to read The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun and Soundoff! before the start of every class. Five cadets would then give a synopsis of the stories in front of their peers.

Before the end of each school year, cadets also were required to conduct research and give an oral presentation on a topic of their choice.

Preston said these exercises helped keep them informed and improved their communication skills for college and job interviews.

Yore said that each year, previous graduates return to speak with current cadets and help them understand the significance of JROTC and the positive impact JROTC can have on their lives.

Preston said many of the former cadets keep in touch and sometimes call for advice.

"It's most rewarding, my relationship with these young people," he said.

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