At 87 years old, mobility doesn’t come easily to CIRI shareholder Robert James Ekstrom. He is confined to a wheelchair, and he lives in a 24-hour staffed nursing home in Auburn, Wash. Life isn’t what it once was, but to the delight of people in his life, his charisma, memories and sense of humor have not dimmed with age.
His father, Jim Ekstrom, was a runaway from New York City’s Swedish Harlem who left for Alaska at age 14 as a cabin boy on a clipper ship. In Alaska, his father met his mother, a Dena’ina Athabascan named Nancy Stephan Hedberg (Dutnalna A. Stephan) of Kenai.
Ekstrom is an Anchorage legacy, whose memories of early life in Anchorage illustrate a vastly different city landscape. In his youth, dairy farms and a dump still existed downtown. In fact, Ekstrom earned a living as a youngster herding cows for 25 cents a day at a dairy farm that used to exist on 4th Avenue.
He says he had a happy childhood and was raised by his father in a small home on 2nd Avenue. He was a good student in school because he says “the kids with good grades were let out early to go fishing.”
As a youth, his favorite memories involve playing hockey – an inexpensive sport that his best friend, the late Isam Hilary, taught him after they fished ice skates out of the former downtown city dump.
Another favorite memory of his is getting lost while hiking in the middle of winter with Hilary by Point MacKenzie and stumbling across a cabin whose only contents were a large supply of dry oatmeal and an old gramophone record-player. He says they “ate dry oatmeal like horses” and kept warm by dancing to the song Raccoon Coats by spinning the vinyl record by hand. When he tells the story to friends and family, just as he does with many other stories, he intersperses it with animated songs.
An interesting fact among many about Ekstrom is that he learned to speak and translate Swedish from his father. He also learned that when he thought he was turning 50 years old, he was actually turning 49 because he had never obtained a copy of his birth certificate and was told that his birth year was 1923, when in fact it was 1924. His actual birthday was a day earlier in the month as well – from then on Ekstrom comically encouraged his family and friends to honor him on both days.
Ekstrom is a World War II veteran who served in an infantry division in the Philippines. He advanced to corporal before being honorably discharged after the war. He then went on to work in Folger, Alaska, where he met his first wife, the late Grace Murphy (Konig) and mother of four of his children. The couple was married in Anchorage, where they resided until they divorced. Several years later he married his second wife, Shirley Mack, with whom he shared his life for 44 years until her death in 1999. The couple owned three successful businesses.
As an adult, Ekstrom was known for his generosity and for giving people who may have had a hard time finding a job a chance at employment at one of his businesses. His charisma and humor earned him many friends from across the socio-economic spectrum, from successful attorneys to down-on-their-luck men with little or no formal education.
Ekstrom moved to Washington to be near family after his wife died and his health began to falter in 2000.
“I miss Alaska and I wish that I could get together with people that I was raised with, even though they are no longer around. I suppose that I’m next… I have very little regrets,” says Ekstrom.