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As a boy in Aitkin, Minn., Paul Emch already was known as a budding piano player. One Sunday when his church's organist didn't show for the service, the teenager was hastily drafted to sit in.
He was smitten, and for more than 50 years he played the organ for several Twin Cities churches.
Emch died on April 27 in Edina of lung cancer. He was 73.
After high school, he studied organ at the University of Minnesota and earned his bachelor's degree in music in 1957.
Paul Manz of Minneapolis was one of his professors at the university.
"He was one of my finest organ students," said Manz, adding that fresh out of college, Emch substituted for him at Minneapolis' Mount Olive Lutheran Church for a year.
Manz said Emch had a winning personality, attracting friends easily, always helping others.
Emch, who also worked as an insurance underwriter and then a Hennepin County human services employee for more than 20 years, played organ and sometimes directed choirs at Twin Cities churches, including Salem English Lutheran Church and St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis, and St. Anthony's Nativity Lutheran Church. Until recently, he was on the music staff of Edina's Cross View Lutheran Church.
Mark Sedio of St. Paul, director of music at Minneapolis' Central Lutheran Church, said Emch was a solid player who "loved to improvise on hymns. His playing wasn't dry. He could really work things into a froth."
Sedio said Emch was supportive of younger players and was a longtime leader in the Twin Cities chapter of the American Guild of Organists.
"He had a really great sense of humor, and he worked really funny things into his improvisations," said Sedio.
Kathryn Moen of St. Paul, organist and the former dean of the guild, said Emch was firmly grounded in classical music.
"He was a fine musician," said Moen. "Everyone enjoyed his performance at the keyboard."
Emch retired from Hennepin County in 1997.
He is survived by his sister, June Schellinger of Oakland, Calif., a niece and a nephew.
Services will be held at 10:30 a.m. on May 17 at Cross View Lutheran Church, 6645 McCauley Trail, Edina, with visitation at 9:30 a.m. at the church.