A surprise of a lifetime: Renowned Grand Forks musician surprised with UND degree, ceremony

Dave Berger thought he was going to an award ceremony for one of his bandmates. Instead, it was time for some pomp and circumstance

Dave Berger was surprised with a bachelor's degree and graduation ceremony at UND this week. (Nick Broadway / WDAY News)

GRAND FORKS — Dave Berger, a man renowned for his musicianship and service to Grand Forks, was one class away from graduating with a music degree back in the 90's.

But he wasn't able to finish, eventually moving on with a career in music — other jobs — and starting a family.

When UND President Andrew Armacost heard about this story, he decided Berger's work after school was worth recognition.

"This is going to be a fun day,” Armacost said, just as Berger’s friends and family packed into the Hughes Fine Arts Center for a special surprise this week.

Berger, who is often spotted in a hat and shades fronting the Downtown Horns in Grand Forks, thought he was going to an award ceremony for one of his band mates. Instead, it was time for some pomp and circumstance and the surprise of a lifetime as his kids adorned him with a cap and gown. It left Berger speechless.


"Thank you. Thank you all,” he said with a laugh. “I hope someone says something next."

Berger was given a bachelor’s degree in general studies by Armacost. And this is no honorary degree — it's the real deal, with plenty of friends and family who can attest to this official graduation ceremony.

It was an especially important moment for the Berger family.

Last September, Berger was diagnosed with pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer, a rare form found in less than 2% of pancreas cancers.

His son, Alex, spoke about how especially precious these moments become.

"I feel like you've truly put in the hard work, decades of work, leading up to today, and you just didn't realize it,” Alex Berger said.

Piercing through the hardships was the overflowing joy filling the room filled with friends and family.

"I feel like this is what community is supposed to be,” Dave Berger said.


His wife, Jen, kept the secret since February.

“One close call, a friend texted him at 4:15 and it said, why on earth would I have Dave Berger graduation on my calendar for today. And he didn't look at his phone before we came."

He had no idea any of it was happening.

With his tassel turned, Dave Berger finally got his name in the graduation booklet, framed degree in hand — surrounded by unrelenting love.

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