EKSTROM—Robert James Ekstrom, Sr., 93, of Florence, passed away peacefully on July 26, 2017,while surrounded by his four children.
Bob (or Bobby as he was more commonly known) was born Jan. 30, 1924, in the old railroad hospital in Anchorage, the youngest child of Nancy Stephan Hedburg Ekstrom and the only child of James “Jim” Pete Ekstrom.
His father raised him.
Jim fished commercially at Granite Point during the summer and always took his little boy with him. They slept in a tent, continually tormented by curious black bears; a nightmare for Bobby. He often was awakened with a paw coming through the canvas or returning with his father to a destroyed camp. He never understood why his father had no fear of bears.
Bobby, a bright child, was enrolled at age 5 in Central, located in downtown Anchorage, the only school at that time. He was bilingual as he had learned to speak Swedish and English simultaneously prior to attending school. He excelled scholastically; played saxophone in the band and hockey on the city team (the school didn’t have a team).
After Bobby graduated from ninth grade, his father forced him to quit school and go to work. During the winter, Jim traveled, working as a pile driver, constructing docks, bridges and buildings in various parts of Alaska.
Bobby’s sisters, Lillie, Alice and Gladys, and his two brothers, John and Elmer, looked in on him but often he was left alone at the 2nd Avenue house his father owned in Anchorage. This was difficult enough, but at 8 years old Bobby was abandoned by a caregiver during the winter. At the time, he was in a full body cast from a broken hip. He was found barely alive but survived.
The rough times were instru- mental in developing Bobby’s strength of character and outlook on life. From that point forward he was known for his charisma, independence, personal pride, delightful sense of humor and endearing charm.
He was a survivor in every way, always enjoying life in a lively and often somewhat noisy way.
As a young man, Bobby worked with his dad during the winter. More than once he got fired by his dad just to get rehired the next day. When he got older, he worked on the Alaska Highway, but always left permanent employment to return to Granite Point for the fishing season.
During WWII, Bobby enlisted in the U.S. Army with several of his lifelong friends, including Isam Hillary. He was initially transported to Seattle, then to several other bases in the South. It was then onto Attu and the Philippines. He loved recounting all the crazy jokes he and his Army buddies played on each other, including sneaking out of the barracks to go into town to party and chase girls.
After the war, Bobby was working up in Folger when he met his first wife, Grace Konig. They married within a year and in time had five children: Roberta, Carol Ann, Robert Jr., Georgia and Pete. They lost Carol Ann when she was 2 years old. During those early years, Bobby worked for Arctic Oil Fuel delivering heating oil and fishing during the summer. When Grace and Bobby divorced, like his father he raised the children.
It was quite unusual in those days. Catholic Charities and State of Alaska Social Services more than once tried to influence him to give up his children.
In 1954, Shirley Rae Mack had relocated to Anchorage from Oregon, and was working at Fort Richardson when they met. She and Bobby hit it off but an emer- gency forced her to return to Oregon. Several years later, with a lame excuse, she called him. He asked her to come back to Anchorage and she did within three days. He was the love of her life.
Within months they married and so their 45 years of life together began.
The family continued to reside in Anchorage until the late 1960s, when Bobby and Shirley permanently relocated to Granite Point. This was an enormous change for Shirley, who was city girl. Without hesitation she accepted the challenge of living in the bush in a fish camp with almost nothing.
There was no electricity, run- ning water, sewer or septic, tele- phone, roads or any borough services. At first, they just had an old undependable truck but no winter roads between Granite Point and Tyonek or any place else.
In the 1970s, Bobby and Shirley established Trading Bay Catering. The first restaurant, the “Cook Shack,” was nothing more than a converted shed. Old ATCO trailers were purchased and upgraded for sleeping quarters for seismic crews.
The business really took off when Bobby and Shirley built their home. Building materials were transported by dory from Anchorage. Bobby, Shirley and three friends constructed the 3,000-square-foot home all by themselves.
They then built a restaurant better known as “Shirleyville.” Bobby had an astounding knack for drumming up business. Shirley, a bookkeeper, was a fan- tastic cook. Bobby was the breakfast chef with sleepy crews coming in at 6 a.m., ending up singing along with Bobby instead of Mitch.
Shirley and Bobby were quite the pair.
In addition, he bought the Pelican, a WWII modified landing craft. Unknown to most of the fisherman, Bobby contacted fish processors year after year to insure the Cook Inlet Northern District setnettters had a buyer for their fish.
The Pelican tendered salmon delivering the catch to Anchorage and/or Kenai processors until he retired.
Shirley passed away in 1999. Bobby had health issues of his own and, at age 76, sold Shirleyville to the Native Village of Tyonek and another partner.
The patronage from Native Village of Tyonek (many friends and family) had greatly con- tributed to the financial success of Shirleyville. Bobby was glad to see the village buy the busi- ness with hopes it would contin- ue to be a place to gather for good food and good company.
Bobby relocated to Washington State, residing with his daughter, Roberta, and her husband until his health failed. He then moved to a care facility.
The Regency was only blocks from Roberta’s home, so he came home for visits during the day plus enjoyed visits from family and friends at the facility. The Regency staff loved him. His wit and humor never let him down. Caregivers never knew what he might come up with to challenge and entertain them.
Bobby is survived by his four children: Roberta Hallam, Robert James Ekstrom Jr., Georgia Dieringer and Pete Ekstrom; eight grand-children and many great-grandchildren.
Burns’s Riverside Chapel Florence Funeral Home was in charge of arrangements.