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Remembering John Soberg

November 19, 2007

By Ryan Gueningsman
Managing Editor

A man who simply seemed to fall out of the sky as a god send to so many people returned home last Sunday following a 17-year-battle with a liver condition, as well as bile duct cancer.

While known for so many things over the years – one friend said his resume reads like a list of “What hasn’t he done?” – Delano resident John Soberg, who died Sunday afternoon, was perhaps best known for being Garrison Keillor’s stand-in during filming of the movie “A Prairie Home Companion,” released in June 2006.

Locally, the father of four young boys – Zachary, 16; Alex, 13; Daniel, 8; and Benjamin, 6; and husband of Tarryn, began hanging out at Three Crows on River Street several years ago.

Soberg, along with Three Crows owner Gina Coburn, and friends Drew Emmer and Al Sterner, were brainstorming one day and Soberg threw out the idea of having a music series at Three Crows.

Coburn said out of that came the “Legends” series the establishment is proud to feature today, which has brought notable musicians like Pat Donahue, Billy McLauglin, and many others to Delano.

“From being down there (on the set of ‘A Prairie Home Companion’), he had ideas and got to know people,” Coburn said.

“John really connected with the community of people that we have around the music thing at Three Crows,” Sterner said. “He just became such a good friend so quickly. He had that ability to connect with people on a meaningful basis. He was just a great person at getting things done, and could make things happen.”

Soberg, Sterner, and Emmer affectionately became known as the “Three Tall Men,” when promoting events with Coburn.

Twin Cities film maker Dean Hyers said Soberg was a successful man all of his life, starting several businesses at the age of 18, founding a training company, and through that, also discovering he was a powerful motivational speaker.

“He was a rare, naturally-gifted inspirational speaker,” Hyers said. “Things sounded magical when John would say them.”

Hyers said, through his speaking engagements, Soberg felt a sense of performance, and that was a quality Soberg used in fostering his love for the film industry.

“Part of the loss, part of the sadness, to me, is I know we would have done some things together,” Hyers said. “I don’t know what they would have been, but now, we don’t get to find out. He was heading towards becoming a film icon.”

As for the music connection at Three Crows, Hyers said Soberg has always had the music niche in his blood, too, having formed a band for a short time in his teens.

No matter what Soberg was working on, Hyers said one thing Soberg took to heart was learning every imaginable thing about how something works, and why things happen.

Whatever projects Soberg became involved in, Hyers said you knew the basis of it was pure, and that as soon as he began something, he launched into research mode.

“He’d interview producers, and knew so much about the industry,” Hyers said. “He knew what everything meant, and that was a cool thing about John.”

Dave Halls, the executive director of Shoot In Minnesota, a non-profit film industry trade association organized for the purpose of improving the state of the film industry in Minnesota, said three years ago, Soberg “almost literally fell out of the sky for us.”

“I received a phone call from him, and he introduced himself by saying that he briefly was a stand-in for Garrison Keillor on ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’” Halls said in a written statement.

Soberg told Halls that he was fascinated by the industry, and was amazed to discover Minnesota was rich in technical and production talent.

“He had heard that locally, our industry was struggling, and was aware that there was an effort underway to lobby the state legislature for production incentives,” Halls said. 

“John told me that he was fortunate to have been successful in his business ventures, and was looking for new challenges in his life. He mentioned that he had experience as a volunteer lobbyist in Washington, DC, as well as being politically connected here in Minnesota. He asked if he could be of help to Shoot In Minnesota.”

Why Soberg wanted to get involved with Shoot In Minnesota is still sort of a mystery to Halls.

“His motivations were not driven by professional or financial gain from the motion picture industry,” Halls said. “He told me that he did not quite understand it either, but that he did indeed feel ‘a calling’ to be involved.”

Halls mentioned an e-mail Soberg sent in May, revealing he had been diagnosed with cancer, where Soberg said, “It has been a great journey. Several lifetimes of experience and adventure have been compacted into these years. I have found that service to others is the most fulfilling.”

“He had a lot going,” Sterner said. “One option probably was to just fold up and take what reality deals you, but he kept his spirit of fighting, to try and be here for his wife, family, friends, and business. He knew he had to have that positive hope – and he didn’t give that up, as difficult as it got.”

Halls said Soberg continued to represent the film community well at the state capitol, as he met with legislators and Governor Tim Pawlenty.  

“John attended a meeting at the capitol in September with representatives of the governor’s office,” Halls said. “John was visibly very ill and under quite a bit of discomfort at that time, but remained his old self – articulate and persuasive.”

Whether it’s in Delano, or with the cast and crew of “A Prairie Home Companion,” or any of the numerous other projects Soberg was involved in, one constant is that Soberg’s absence will be felt throughout.

“Yet, we are stronger, better people for knowing him,” Halls said. “In honor of his memory, we move on, always fighting fear, doubt, and uncertainty.”

Hyers said, among other things, Soberg gave him advice on training, and to have Soberg in his life was “a god send in so many ways.”

“I can always feel good about the time I did spend with him,” Hyers said. “I think his life was one that brought many gifts to many people, and will continue to do so.”

 At Three Crows in Delano, Sterner said the Legends series will continue without Soberg, but said “it can never be without his spirit.”

“It’s kinda like a huge tree or building has fallen in the community,” Sterner said, adding that in the future, there could be a benefit or memorial planned for Tarryn and the children.

“We’ll have to see what the community needs and wants,” Sterner said. “Whatever we can do to help Tarryn and the kids – we will.”

Coburn said Soberg had a big vision for Delano, and said he really “got” the community.

“He really could see this (Legends concert series) as a contribution to the revival of downtown,” Coburn said. “He talked to a lot of other people in town, and was encouraging about what we’re trying to do here.”

One of the latest things Soberg had approached Coburn about was the possibility of videographing the performances at Three Crows, and utilizing students from Delano Public Schools.

“He had a big vision for the town of Delano,” Coburn said. “We’re all just missing him.”

Funeral services for Soberg took place Friday morning at Light of Christ Lutheran Church in Delano.

Benefit account established to help Soberg family

Family and friends of John Soberg have established a benefit account to help John’s family.

Soberg was unable to obtain life insurance due to his long-standing liver condition.

Donations can be made payable to the John Soberg Benefit Account, c/o Crow River Bank, PO Box B2, Delano, MN 55328.

A group of students from Delano Schools, including Kensie Douglas and Kami Oberaigner, have also been collecting funds for the benefit account at Delano Public Schools. Contributions can be sent to the address above, or dropped off at the Delano High School office.