George A. Tesar was born in Prague, survived Nazi concentration camps, escaped to the United States in 1949 and lived the rags-to-riches American dream.

He was a top athlete and hard-driving businessman who spent most of his career with Dayton's and in 1980 became chief executive officer of Dayton Hudson Jewelers. He also served on the boards of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Museum of Art.

Tesar, 91, died this week in Mill Valley, Calif., after a series of strokes, his son Rob Tesar said.

"He was a perfect example of how ... an immigrant can come here with nothing in his back pocket and live the American dream," said Whitney MacMillan, of Wayzata. He said he became friends with Tesar after playing tennis with him and later bought jewelry from the firm Tesar started after leaving Dayton's in 1982.

Tesar escaped communism by playing goalie on a Czechoslovakian semi-pro hockey team and defecting when the team played in Paris in 1949, said Rob Tesar.

Elise Tesar, his wife of 61 years and a former figure skater, said the couple met "on ice" in Prague. He brought her to the United States, where they were married in 1949.

"He was an outgoing sportsman, smart and generous," Elise Tesar said of her husband. By 1965, he was general manager of Dayton's department store in St. Paul. Remembering Europe's brightly lit cathedrals, Tesar started a Chamber of Commerce campaign that paid for the lights that illuminate the St. Paul Cathedral at night, his wife said.

Tesar was a competitor in sports and business and worked his way up the corporate ladder. "He was Type A, a hard-driving, aggressive guy who came to America with his eyes set on goals," said Rob Tesar. "Dayton Hudson became his life. He wanted to reach a high level and he did."

Douglas Dayton, of Orono, recalled when Tesar walked into a Dayton's office and said he wanted to work for the company in 1956. They liked his directness and personal drive and hired him as a buyer in the Sioux Falls store, said Dayton, who supervised the branch stores. Tesar was soon promoted to store manager.

"He was energetic, devoted and eager to manage," Dayton said.

Rob Tesar, of Lake Bluff, Ill., said his father was customer-oriented and "demanded excellence of everyone -- his kids and the people he worked with. Some people didn't care for that, but in the long run people respected him. He loved mentoring people and giving advice, especially in business."

Tesar was a strong patriot, grateful to the Americans who rescued him from the camps. He sent encouraging letters to U.S. presidents during crises and received replies from Harry Truman, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton, his son said. He loved tennis and skiing, even after a hip replacement. He skied in Aspen, Colo., with his "old goats" pals into his 80s until he broke a leg, Rob Tesar said.

Tesar is also survived by children George, of Moreland Hills, Ohio, and Lisa Tesar Capretta, of Mill Valley, Calif., nine grandchildren and a brother Peter Tesar, of Oakville, Ontario. A private memorial service will be held.

Jim Adams• 612-673-7658