When a church is willing to spend $600,000 on an organ, musicians take notice. That's how Erik Travis, a keyboard prodigy from the age of 5, was lured to Minnesota in 1988 and became a vital part of services at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Edina for 19 years.

"That was a standout in its day, because the perception at the time was that Catholic parishes — for the most part — did not invest in the very best traditional music," said Michael Barone, host of MPR's classical music show "Pipedreams." "But Erik was a canny choice. He played with fluency and grace. He was kind of your ideal organist."

Travis died July 15 from complications of diabetes. He was 63.

Though his parents weren't musicians, they were educators who could spot potential, and they knew there was something different about their child as he grew up. He began imitating sounds like the garbage disposal as a toddler, and was often found dancing to music as he changed record albums by himself, still wearing diapers.

Travis started taking piano lessons at the age of 5 and quickly mastered the instrument. By the time he was in high school, he could perform most of Bach's major organ works. He won his first major piano competition at 15, earning the right to perform with the symphony orchestra in Madison, Wis.

Travis studied piano at the University of Wisconsin and later the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. He won numerous keyboard competitions, but he privately complained that many of his peers would try to sabotage each other's performance by stealing their score or tinkering with their instrument. Once, his wife, Theresa Carr, recalled, Travis was told "horrific news" by his opponent's teacher just before he performed. He won anyway.

"Many people are competitive in the music world, but Erik was not that way at all," said lifetime friend Kathy Klein Eddy, a New York piano teacher who regularly lost out to Travis during his university years. "He found the good in everybody's playing. He is the reason I became a pianist. He was not only my inspiration, but my mentor."

Though he was highly trained, Travis disdained musicians who worried about getting through a performance without a mistake.

Carr said she learned that on her first date with Travis, when they went to an organ recital in St. Paul. During a break, she reluctantly told Travis she found the performance "boring." Instead of lecturing her, Travis agreed, writing off the performer as a "note player."

"Erik was all about the life of the music," Carr said. "He'd rather hear flaws and passion than every note perfectly."

Travis was living in New York when he heard of an Edina church that was about to install one of the world's premiere pipe organs. Carr said he jumped at the chance to become Our Lady of Grace's music director and regular organist.

"When you're an organist, you can't put your instrument in a case and travel," Carr said. "You are attached to a building."

Travis recruited some of the area's most talented musicians and vocalists for the church, who became regulars during the holidays. Lynn Erickson, a trumpet player with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, was stunned when Travis told her they didn't need to rehearse for their first performance.

"I'd never been in a situation where someone just leans over to me and says, 'Do you have something that is about two minutes long we can play right now?' It was a little scary at first. But he never missed. He was amazing."

In addition to his wife, Travis is survived by a son, Jeremy, of Texas; brothers Sven of New York and Kort of Perth, Australia; sister Bryn, of Maine, and a grandson. Services have been held.

Jeffrey Meitrodt • 612-673-4132