Jack Berg was 21 years old and fresh out of the Air National Guard when he met a woman he fancied at an Arthur Murray Dance Center in Milwaukee. She invited him to church.
Berg grew up in a troubled home with no formal religion. But of course he went. He liked this girl.
The pastor greeted Berg warmly by name after the service, and asked him to come back, maybe grab lunch sometime.
The romance with the girl fizzled, but in that one exchange with the pastor, Berg found his footing.
He came to the Twin Cities for college and seminary before making his way to Luck, Wis., where he spent 28 years as pastor of two Lutheran churches.
"Once he set out on that new course, he never turned back," said Berg's son-in-law, Paul Pettersen, a Lutheran pastor in Edina. "He had a strong conviction to be the pastor he wanted to be — and the dad and husband he wanted to be."
Berg, who moved to Hopkins about five years ago with his wife, died Nov. 25 from complications of dementia. He was 89.
Born June 2, 1930, in Milwaukee, he and twin sister June were the youngest of nine children in a family with two sets of twins. Their father was an alcoholic who could be volatile and abusive, Berg told his family. Berg was 9 years old and hiding in a barn with his siblings when he last saw his dad. There was a sense of relief when Berg's brother-in-law confronted the older man and sent him away for good.
For Berg, a key touchstone became that pastor with the warm smile, Reuben Gornitzka of Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Milwaukee. Gornitzka encouraged Berg's education and religious training and sent money to help defray costs. (Gornitzka later become senior pastor at Minneapolis Central Lutheran Church from 1956 to 1963 and was a well-known personality on KSTP-TV and WCCO radio and TV.)
"He made me feel very special," Berg said in a sermon for the centennial celebration of Luck Lutheran Church in 2003. "He made me feel important and wanted."
Berg took that lesson to heart, said his eldest daughter, Laura Nelson of Lakeville.
"He became an amazing husband and father with no real example of how to do it," she said. "It's because he found his faith in God and the people in his life who were so instrumental. The lesson is: Using someone's first name can change a life."
Berg met his future wife, Nancy, while attending Lutheran Bible Institute in Minneapolis. She was his boss as a stock boy at Donaldson's department store. She was five years younger and raised a Baptist, so he took her to a revival at the Minneapolis Armory for their first date. They married less than a year later.
From 1966 to 1994, Berg led back-to-back services at separate churches every Sunday, driving between the larger congregation in town and a small country church that mostly drew farmers and their families.
"Everyone knew Pastor Jack Berg, even if they didn't go to his church," Pettersen said.
Berg was always taking in stray or rescue dogs, and he filled every corner of the family's home (and cabin and assorted outbuildings) with antique clocks, lamps and furniture he had restored. He never forgot the people and stories behind them.
"It was in him to fix broken things," his son-in-law said. "In some way, it's a metaphor for himself. Sometimes it was the ugliest thing at the garage sale. But he could see exactly how he was going to restore it to beauty."
In addition to his daughter Laura and his wife of 66 years, Berg is survived by daughters Linda Henke and Lisa Pettersen, both of Minnetonka, and a son, Jeff Berg of Menomonie, Wis. Services have been held.
Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335