Paul Bergstrom, whose tenacity, compassion and broad curiosity about the world were partly shaped by a year as combat medic in Vietnam, died of complications from cancer and other ailments Friday at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis. The longtime St. Paul resident was 64.
Bergstrom was born in Minneapolis and grew up in Bloomington. After graduating from high school at 17, he enlisted in the Navy. He trained as a medic and was assigned to a three-month tour of duty in Vietnam, but chose to spend a full year there, putting himself at great risk in combat zones, said his wife, Katie.
"He came back a supertough and well-respected guy, and all his life, his combat buddies called him 'Doc,'" she said. "Vietnam changed his life, but not in a negative way. For his whole life he would look out for veterans," including service on the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans.
After Vietnam, he studied psychology at the University of Minnesota, graduating in the early 1970s. Then he traveled to France, a country he loved, to attend medical school. He didn't finish, his wife said, instead returning to Minnesota to enroll at William Mitchell School of St. Paul, from which he graduated in the early 1980s.
His varied interests and skills showed in the work he did to put himself through law school. "He drove taxis, worked as a physician's assistant, performed autopsies and was a private investigator," his wife said.
After graduation, he was hired by the Meshbesher & Spence law firm. "With his medical training, he worked on a lot of high-end personal injury lawsuits, including representing hundreds of women and children injured by the Dalkon Shield," Katie said.
After 20 years at Meshbesher, he "reinvented his law career," his wife said, serving as a family law mediator on divorce and custody issues, as an attorney in Ramsey County's guardian ad litem program, and finally as a judicial referee for Ramsey County's family court system, a role he determinedly kept up until very recently despite battling cancer. "He was a hard worker who really cared about people, especially the children he advocated for," she said.
Outside of work, he "had a continual thirst for knowledge," his wife said. "We'd start every morning by reading newspapers together, and he was an avid reader of nonfiction and lover of almost every single genre of music." He had a night and weekend gig as a DJ for an oldies radio station.
"He had a very droll sense of humor, and most of all, he loved, loved, loved his [four] children," his wife said.
Fred Pritzker, a fellow attorney and longtime friend, met Bergstrom when they both worked at Meshbesher. "He had such an interesting background -- he'd been a corpsman in Vietnam, had seen very intense combat, had been a cabbie and a dispatcher, had done autopsies, spoke fluent French and was just a very cool guy, always curious and intellectually engaged," Pritzker said. "Yet he never bragged about all the things he'd done, or even mentioned them much."
"Paul was really good at drawing people out, which was great in his work, as he helped people deal with very unhappy situations in a caring, compassionate but also unsentimental way," Pritzker said. "He could be irreverent, but was never judgmental or bombastic."
In addition to his wife, Bergstrom is survived by four children, Adam, 30, of Duluth, Max, 27, of St. Paul, Henry, 12, and Nora, 9; a brother, Robert, of Bloomington, and two sisters, Jennifer Hinz of Bloomington and Martha Morical of California.
Services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at the Cathedral of St. Paul, 239 Selby Av., with visitation at 9:30 a.m. at the cathedral.
Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290