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James Berg was destined for a career in music. As a child, he helped support his family by playing the violin on street corners, in cafes and other establishments in southwestern Wisconsin.

By the time he graduated from LaCrosse (Wis.) Central High School in the late 1940s, Berg was a consummate violinist who earned a full scholarship to the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

He finished his education by earning two master's degrees at the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis, then spent his career sharing his passion for music. He taught high school students in Robbinsdale, gave private lessons in his home and was one of the first conductors of the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies (GTCYS, pronounced GIT-sees). He also served as director of the Mankato Youth Symphony.

"He was demanding in regards to the music and had a way of being disciplinary, but the kids knew that it was only because he wanted to get the best out of them," said GTCYS librarian Steve Savre. "He made sure they had the best experience possible. He loved kids, loved music and brought those two together better than most do."

Berg died of Alzheimer's disease Aug. 3 at North Ridge Care Center in New Hope. He was 81.

Berg would rather have played sports, said his wife of 57 years, Jean, but in 1936 at age 6 he contracted polio and so "was not a candidate for sports." Still, Berg played doubles on LaCrosse Central's 1946 tennis team that made it to the state finals. He coached tennis at Bemidji High School, where he also served as music director for two years in the late 1950s. He also taught high school band in Poplar, Mont., and orchestra for two years in Mankato before he arrived in the Robbinsdale School District.

"From beginners to seniors in high school, he loved music so much and felt it was important that every student participate because it helped develop both sides of the brain," his wife said. "He loved seeing their progress. Teaching was his calling in life."

From 1966 to 1987, Berg taught classes and directed ensembles that played concerts and performed for musicals at Sandburg Middle School in Golden Valley and at Robbinsdale Cooper and the former Robbinsdale high schools. Because of his highly regarded reputation, William Jones, now director of orchestral studies at the University of Iowa, recruited him in 1972 to be the first conductor of GTCYS, Savre said.

"I will never forget the passion, energy and enthusiasm with which he conducted every class and rehearsal," said former student and GTCYS member Erin Kaste, of Memphis, Tenn. "He managed to demand excellence from students while retaining a positive, supportive learning environment. He is the reason I am a professional musician. He was a true inspiration."

While with GTCYS, Berg led two youth symphonies along with summer camps and clinics in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Montana. He took GTCYS students to play at special events and on trips to Europe and Russia, Jean Berg said. Even after he left GTCYS in 1999, Berg continued to give private lessons to seven to nine students a week in his home, his wife said.

In addition to his wife, Jean, of Plymouth, Berg is survived by two sons, Kevin of Northridge, Calif., and Richard of La Quinta, Calif., and three grandchildren.

Services have been held.