When the Minnesota Orchestra needed a French horn player to perform at Carnegie Hall, they called James Engebretson.
Engebretson was the band director at a Twin Cities middle school at the time, and the school's principal reluctantly gave him permission to take off if he kept it quiet from the other teachers. He flew to New York City, played the show and took the red-eye that night so he was back in time for school.
Years later, at Engebretson's retirement party, his son Mikael brought up the time his Dad played Carnegie Hall on the sly. He was surprised that no one seemed to have any idea what he was talking about.
"I realized he never told anybody. He really was a humble man," his son said. "To me it was always one of my favorite stories about him. He was that kind of guy."
An accomplished French horn player who dedicated his life to teaching music to young people, Engebretson died May 6 at his home in Hugo of congestive heart failure. He was 83. His family and friends remember him for his charitable spirit — the type of guy who was always fixing up horns or clarinets for kids who couldn't afford them.
His résumé includes band leader, teacher and composer. He helped start the North Metropolitan Brass Quintet and the Lake Wobegon Brass Band, and he performed with such esteemed groups as the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, International Horn Club and Metropolitan Opera Company.
"He was one of the finest musicians I've ever known," said James Limburg, a college classmate and fellow musician who taught theology at Luther Seminary, and incorporated Engebretson's music into his curriculum.
The son of a piano teacher, Engebretson grew up in Black River Falls, Wis., surrounded by music. He excelled as a musician at an early age and as a seventh-grader played French horn in the high school band. By the time he got to high school, he was directing the choir at his church.
Engebretson was a devout Lutheran, and as a student at Luther College, he wrestled with the choice of going to seminary or pursuing a career in music. He decided on music, but his faith remained a driving force in his life.
He published hundreds of compositions, including two books of hymns. He endeavored to make music fun, and he focused on arranging it so no one was left out of playing the melodies, regardless of skill level.
"These hymns helped to bring together intergenerational musicians," said Limburg. "A middle schooler might find himself or herself sitting next to a grandmother who took her trombone out of a dusty closet in the attic."
Engebretson was active in his church and played golf and softball in his spare time. His son remembers him as a loving father who took his family out on boat rides on the St. Croix River and as a party host who played piano while guests gathered around and sang.
Throughout his life, Engebretson taught music at high school, junior high and elementary schools. He turned down opportunities to teach at the college level to focus on getting younger students to fall in love with playing at an early age with the hope of making them lifelong musicians, his son recalled.
"It was this philosophy of: Catch them while they're young. Make it fun," he said.
After retirement, he continued to play until arthritis no longer allowed it. But even then, he arranged compositions.
After Engebretson died, his son found several brass compositions his father had just finished and printed. "He was working right up until the end," his son said.
Engebretson is survived by his wife, Audrey; children Mikael, Steven, Thomas, Jon and Ann; sister Solveig Kleppe; and many grandchildren, nephews and nieces.
His friends and family will hold a service on May 24 at Christ the King Lutheran Church, 1900 7th St. NW, New Brighton.