Paula Berg knew how to get her middle-school students at Carondelet Catholic School in south Minneapolis to listen up.
"She was hilarious," said one of them, Thomas Hannan, 13. "Like, in religion class last year, she compared Bible characters to modern people. She said the Philistines were like the cast of 'Jersey Shore' -- they were 'the popular hotties.' She was definitely my favorite teacher."
The intellectual curiosity and occasional merriment that characterized Berg's classes -- this year, she taught mostly math -- fell hushed this week in the wake of her unexpected death Friday at Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina, where she had gone Wednesday thinking she had pneumonia. The exact cause of her death has yet to be determined. She was 59, and had lived in Minneapolis until a few months ago, when she moved to Richfield.
On Monday, students and teachers spent time in somber remembrance as condolences poured in, said Principal Sue Kerr. "So many people said, 'My child never liked math before they had her,'" Kerr said. "She had high standards for behavior and academic performance, and the kids really tried to live up to those expectations."
Berg was born in Iowa, an only daughter in a close-knit, music-loving family of five children, said her brother Barry Berg of Minneapolis. Her family moved to Montevideo, Minn., when she was young, and she graduated from high school there and then from the University of Minnesota, Morris. "She started out teaching in the Atwater [Minn.] schools, then moved to the Twin Cities, partly at my suggestion that she might want to experience a broader world," Barry said.
In the Twin Cities, she taught a variety of subjects -- English, social studies, science and math -- at several schools, including St. Therese in Deephaven and Our Lady of Peace in Minneapolis, Kerr said. At some schools, she created drama and music programs. She'd been at Carondelet since 2008.
"Miss Berg made math fun," Thomas Hannan said. "And she was pretty good at enforcing study habits, like if we had a late assignment, she'd only let us turn it in one day late, or we'd get a zero. She made us laugh a lot, though. Like if two people were talking in class, she'd ask them if they should get a room. We're all really, really sad to see her go."
Tony Subialka, who taught social studies in the classroom next to Berg's, called her "the consummate professional, very respectful and supportive of her colleagues" and "an expert at breaking down math so students understood it well."
"People are so hard on teachers these days, but there are a lot of really good ones out there, and she was one," he said. "It really hit me at the end of [Monday] when we dismissed the kids; she and I would always go stand by the lockers and say goodbye and give fist bumps. Today I felt like a police officer whose partner has been shot."
Said her brother Barry: "Her gifts were her creativity and hospitality. She went out of her way to make a difference in the lives of the kids she taught, to draw out the best in each kid. She was never on autopilot in her relations with others."
In addition to Barry, she is survived by three other brothers, Douglas of San Clemente, Calif., Glen of Reno., Nev., and Raymond of St. Paul, and her best friend, Eileen Finn. Services will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Catholic Church of Christ the King, 5029 Zenith Av. S., Minneapolis, with visitation at the church one hour before services.
Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290