Bruce Sorrells seemed to know just the right approach to helping a kid get through a rough patch.

He grew up fatherless, which explained part of it. But he also knew from an early age that he enjoyed working with young people.

Whether volunteering or working for pay, Sorrells doled out tough love and survival skills for two generations of children most in need of it.

"He was always working with kids, as long as I knew him," said Rebecca Doyle, his former wife, who met Sorrells when they were both students at Washburn High School.

Sorrells, of Minneapolis, died of cancer Jan. 11. He was 60.

He was a youth sports coach in high school and landed his first career job at Hospitality House Youth Development in north Minneapolis, about a mile from where he grew up in Sumner Field Homes, the city's first federally subsidized housing project.

Sorrells later worked for the Minneapolis Public Schools as a behavior dean at Jenny Lind Elementary, where he sought to diffuse disciplinary problems and intervene with at-risk students and their families.

For at least three decades, he worked at the day treatment center for St. Joseph's Home for Children, whose programs are aimed at students in kindergarten through eighth grade with severe emotional and behavioral problems.

"He was committed to the cause here," said Aaron Bellfield, a 20-year veteran of the facility in south Minneapolis operated by Catholic Charities. "He cared about the kids and the work. He taught them self-regulation skills that could help them be successful in school: to stop and think, and learn how to make a good choice instead of a bad choice."

Sorrells and his only sibling, Jenny Deacon, lived with their mother and grandmother in one of the two-story row houses built by the Work Progress Administration in 1935, just across from Sumner Field Park.

Deacon, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, said people always gravitated toward her younger brother and his sense of humor. Those qualities put the young people he worked with at ease.

"They felt safe with him," she said. "He had a strength that they needed to see. For those kids on the edge, who could go one way or another, he positioned himself in service to guide them, to help them make the right decisions."

After graduating from Washburn in 1976, Sorrells began working on a college degree, but work and life put his studies on hold.

He and Doyle were married in 1983 and settled into a home in north Minneapolis. They had two sons, Reuben and Ramsey, whom they sent to the Breck School.

"He and I both worked two jobs and raised kids who went to private school," Doyle said. "It was money and time and all of that" that delayed a degree.

Sorrells was 49 when he earned a bachelor's degree in special education from Augsburg College, where he specialized in emotional and behavior disabilities.

Though the couple divorced after 18 years, they did not live far apart, and Sorrells was a welcome visitor at holidays and other gatherings at Doyle's brother's home.

Reuben, 35, his oldest son, who lives and works in New York City, said his father turned him on to rap music and taught him important life lessons.

"The neighborhood I grew up in didn't have a lot of dads," he said. "There was a sense of honor in the family, and justice. He wouldn't let me get away with anything."

He recalled getting in trouble in the fourth grade for stealing candy from a teacher's desk. For punishment, his father made him stay home and read the Bible.

"I never got in trouble again," he said.

Services have been held.