Rebecca Gepner remembers not paying much attention to the handsome boy in her German class.

She'd just had her heart broken, and had decided to spend the summer focusing on her studies instead of on boys. But when Gregory Gepner invited her to go for a bike ride around campus, she accepted.

The trouble was, her bicycle had just three speeds and was too big for her. As she and Gregory made their way up a steep hill, Rebecca said, he cruised along on his 10-speed bike while she moved slower, and slower, and slower.

"All of a sudden, I got this hand right in the middle of my back, just pushing me up the hill," she said. "And I decided he wasn't such a bad guy after all."

The two married after college and were together for 45 years. A beloved family physician remembered for his kindness, gentleness and humor, Gregory Jay Gepner died March 12 at his home in St. Paul. He was 69.

Gepner was born Feb. 7, 1948, and grew up in St. Louis Park. His mother, who died when he and his siblings were young, wanted to be a doctor but never became one. From an early age, Gepner had the same dream.

After graduating from St. Louis Park High School, Gepner studied at the University of Minnesota and Dartmouth College. He attended the Stanford University School of Medicine and did a family medicine residency at the U.

When Gepner's residency was over, he and Rebecca moved to Redmond, Ore., an area without much access to medical care, where he and another physician started a clinic.

The Tumbleweed Clinic was a family medicine clinic with patient-centered obstetrics at a time when women were still restrained during labor and fathers weren't allowed in the room. Patients would sometimes drive hundreds of miles for prenatal care at the clinic, and to have their babies in a birthing room that patients had decorated themselves.

After seven years in Redmond, the Gepners returned to Minnesota with their two young children and Gregory started a practice at the Nokomis Clinic. He became known for a program that helped patients quit smoking through goal-setting and daily support from clinic staff.

Gepner went on to join the faculty at the University of Minnesota Physicians Smiley's Family Medicine Clinic, where he taught medical students and residents.

Tim Ramer, who is now the clinic's medical director, was a resident in the early 1990s. He said Gepner immediately stood out because of his approachability, humility and sense of humor.

"His style both with patients and with teaching was very relaxed and playful but also principled about what does the patient need, what can we provide them?" Ramer said. "I think he raised a generation of family physicians with that ethos."

Gepner was diagnosed with a brain tumor in his mid-50s, and eventually stopped working. Still, he stayed active — playing racquetball, cycling, skiing — for the remainder of his life.

Gepner was also an amateur astronomer, a passion that began when he was a boy. As an adult, he'd set up his telescope in the road in front of the family house. On summer nights, neighbors would come outside in their pajamas and take turns peering into space, eyeing Saturn's bright rings or the vast darkness of a crater.

Gepner is survived by his wife Rebecca; son Josh of Portland, Ore.; daughter Rachel, of San Francisco, and granddaughter Clara.

A memorial service is planned for April 9 at the James J. Hill Center in St. Paul.

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509