NORTH PLATTE, Neb. — A near-death experience in a car crash and a trade of his bicycle set the compass that directed the rest of Jan Ekstedt’s life.
Ekstedt is currently the pastor at First Christian Church in North Platte, Nebraska.
“I always knew I was going to be a pastor, but I ran away from it,” Ekstedt said. “The reason why I knew I was going to be a pastor was because when I was just 18 months old, my mother and I were in a horrible auto accident that involved our car being hit by a logging truck.”
The logging truck slid into the car on a rainy day and pushed it head-on into a telephone pole.
“I went through the windshield and landed in a field where nobody even knew I was there,” Ekstedt said. “It trapped the driver and killed her, and my mother was trapped, but they got her out of it.
“My mother kept screaming for me and people that were there at the scene just thought she was delirious because they couldn’t see me.”
Ekstedt was unconscious 40 feet away with glass in his eyes, a broken arm and a fractured skull.
“Finally my mother talked somebody into going back to take a last look and the guy found me,” Ekstedt said. “He was a naval medic from World War II, and he washed my eyes out right there and saved my sight, and saved my life, of course.”
His father’s side of the family had a lot of missionaries and ministers, who said God saved Ekstedt’s life for a reason.
“I grew up thinking that I was going to be a pastor,” he said.
But a few years later, life took him in a different direction when Ekstedt traded his first bicycle for his first violin.
“I was in the second grade, 7-, 8-years-old,” he said. “There was a girl my age who lived in our neighborhood. She and I got into an argument, and I knew she played violin, so I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to play violin better than you can.’ So I traded my bike for a violin.”
Ekstedt said music got hold of him and he went on to a successful career in music.
“I played in the Seattle Symphony, I’ve played in the Reno Philharmonic and the Reno Opera Guild,” Ekstedt said. “I played in the Spokane Symphony during the Expo in 1974. Played in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony, a very good orchestra.”
As a young man, he also played with some popular entertainers after the music store he was working at in Seattle transferred him to Reno, Nevada.
“When I was in Reno, people got to know I could play the violin and they asked me to join the union so I could be hired to play shows,” Ekstedt said. “From 1978 to 1981, I played a lot of shows.”
Ekstedt played with Sammy Davis Jr., John Denver, Ben Vereen, Eddy Arnold, Shirley MacLaine, Debbie Reynolds and many others.
“I played with Liberace when he was the highest-paid entertainer in the world,” Ekstedt said. “The interesting thing as a comparison between two different performers was that Liberace had a wonderful show, but it was the same every time. Every word, every note was exactly the same every time. It was all very, very staged.”
However, a Sammy Davis Jr. show was much looser.
“When I played Sammy Davis Jr., you’d go to the rehearsal and there were 60 pieces of music on the stand,” Ekstedt said. “You couldn’t rehearse it all, there was so much music.”
The conductor’s name was George Rhodes.
“With Sammy, you always knew you were going to do the overture, ‘Candy Man’ and ‘[Mr.] Bojangles,’” Ekstedt said. “The conductor would lead us through 10 bars of the overture, 10 bars of ‘Candy Man’ and 10 bars of ‘Bojangles.’ Then he’d say, ‘You guys sound pretty good today, I don’t think you’re going to get me in trouble. I have a tee time in 30 minutes, we’ll see you tonight,’ and that was the rehearsal.”
Music had changed the course of Ekstedt’s life, but God brought someone from his youth back into his life and the direction changed once again.
“I grew up knowing I was going to be a pastor, but it took me until I was 52 years old to decide to go to seminary,” Ekstedt said. “I had failed marriages. I was married and divorced twice before I was 30 and suffered from alcoholism for about 20 years of my adult life.”
Ekstedt, who quit drinking 28 years ago, said God sent his wife, Elaine, to him.
“We had known each other as kids, had gone to the same churches, went to the same school,” Ekstedt said. “When we got married, she said, ‘You know, everybody knew you were going to be a minister — what happened?’”
He told her music had just kind of kept him away from it.
“I really felt like because I was an alcoholic and had been married and divorced twice that God didn’t want me to be a pastor,” Ekstedt said. “Elaine said, ‘Well, maybe it’s time to rethink that.’”
She persuaded him to take just one class in seminary to see how it would go.
“So, I did, I took one class, and the teacher of that class, Brian McClaren, encouraged me to keep going,” Ekstedt said. “I just kept taking classes and ended up getting a master’s degree of divinity in 2003. Then I was ordained with Disciples of Christ in 2005.”
First Christian Church is the third church he has pastored.
“I love the people here,” he said. “They’re wonderful people, not just in this church, but also around town.”
He said he still loves performing and loves being a pastor as well.
“Music was pretty good to me,” Ekstedt said.