Editor's note: This story is reprinted with the permission of the La Crosse (Wisconsin) Tribune newspaper.
Michael Ehm’s helter-skelter route on the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll road to perdition has veered onto the high road as a pastor.
Indeed, the 59-year-old La Crosse man’s path took a lot of pothole-filled detours between his infant days, when he napped on the pool table in his grandparents’ Onalaska bar, and the launch of his pastoral days a year and a half ago as leader of Seventh-day Adventist churches in La Crosse, Hylandale, Sparta and Tomah, Wisconsin.
Congregation members accepted him in spite of — in a certain sense, because of — his questionable past.
As the slogan on the bulletin board of the Adventist church at 2117 La Crosse St. proclaims: “Every saint has a past — every sinner has a future.”
Ehm’s past began in a home for unwed mothers in Milwaukee, where his mom, Onalaska native LaVon Severson, had taken refuge from the judgmental, gossiping tongues her unwed pregnancy would have set to wagging in the mid-1950s.
“The stigmatization of having a child out of wedlock was heavy in those days,” Ehm said during an interview the other day.
She fled from the prying eyes of not only the general public but also the network of relatives in what is one of the largest Norwegian clans in the Badger State.
“I’m probably related to every Severson around here, especially in Holmen,” Ehm said, shaking his head in amazement.
The nuns who ran the home told Severson she had two choices: Surrender her son for adoption or entrust him to foster care until she could prove she could provide for him as a single mother.
A devoted Seventh-day Adventist, Severson shunned adoption and opted for foster care until she could establish herself. All was well and good until word filtered back to her parents, James and Corrine, who went to Milwaukee and rescued their grandson from foster care, Ehm said.
The Seversons ran the Dew Drop Inn, with Corrine tending bar during the day, with baby Michael swaddled on the pool table. James took over for the bar’s night shift, when the infant went home with Corrine, family members have told him.
After he joined his mother and she married Milwaukee firefighter Don Ehm, the young boy took Ehm’s name and settled in to growing up in Milwaukee, he said.
“It was a time of flux, with different values and shifting paradigms, with the Vietnam War and Walter Cronkite on the news every night,” he recalled.
He ran his own lawn business but aspired to be a golf caddy. He whiffed on that because he needed a birth certificate to prove his age, but his mother refused to produce the document because she didn’t want to reveal his father’s identity.
During his junior year, a couple of his buddies were drafted and sent to Vietnam, leaving him feeling deserted, except for the rock music he cherished.
“I was a troubled kid, and the next thing I knew, I was drinking and smoking pot. Somebody put acid in my drink at a party, and I tripped out for two days. I thought it was the alcohol, but it was the acid,” he said, shaking his head.
“At 16, experiencing all of life’s changes, the drugs didn’t help,” he said, although he still felt pulled to the Adventist values his Bible-studying mom had fostered.
He entered the seminary at Andrews University, the denomination’s flagship educational institution, in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
“I wanted to be a pastor, and many in my class wanted to be pastors, but they were only acting like pastors,” he said, a fact that frustrated him.
“I walked away,” he said, transferring to the University of Wisconsin, where he also participated in track and football, although he could not compete on Saturdays, the Adventist day of worship.
The party scene beckoned, and he answered the call, he said, adding, “I never made it to my classes and practice.”
Instead, he began promoting bands as a freelancer and working as a DJ at 92 MAD-FM radio in Madison, which led to gigs organizing Club MTV events, a full-blown promotions job and a move to Los Angeles.
Sporting a Rod Stewart haircut and leathers, he began a nearly two-decade stint as a band promoter and performer, working with the likes of AC/DC, Ozzy Osbourne, Poison, Guns and Roses, the Rolling Stones, U2, Hall and Oates, Dr. Hook and others, as well as working in his birth father’s sex clubs.
“On Friday nights, I remember that I often thought of my friends back at the Adventist seminary preparing for the Sabbath, and I was on stage with AC/DC,” he said.
“It was a crazy life of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and we did what we wanted,” he said. “Pot was my drug of choice. I tried heroin, but it was too scary.
“Adventists say to be temperate in all things, and I was temperate in my drug use — I was experimenting,” he said.
Absorbed in the fast lane of the LA/Hollywood lifestyle, and enlisting his middle name to assume the professional persona of Michael Ross, Ehm also toyed with acting and had parts in a few movies with stars such as Charlie Sheen and Vanessa Williams.
“My movie parts, I have to say, were as a glorified extra,” he said, recalling that his five lines in one movie ended up on the cutting room floor but the fact that he had uttered them earned him his Screen Actors Guild card.
His short-lived marriage ended because, he said, “I wanted to be a rocker, but my wife wanted to be a star.”
Despite the friction, he said, “With all the things on the road — drugs and infidelity — I was pretty loyal to my wife. I had one affair.”
Things exploded the day when she came home with an actress friend and he and his cohorts were doing drugs, drinking and barbecuing on a grill — in the living room.
“We were fashionably married on the beaches of Kauai, Hawaii, and unfashionably divorced in Los Angeles,” Ehm said of the union.
Eventually, he experienced “the realization that drugs kill,” although he continued to use marijuana, he said.
During a phone conversation with his mother, she expressed alarm that he was promoting and hanging around with Ozzy Osbourne back in the heavy metal rocker’s bat-head-biting days.
“My mom had gotten a hold of a paper with a picture of Ozzy Osbourne getting rabies shots and said, ‘Didn’t you have some business with him?’ When I said, ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘Oh, Michael,’” Ehm recalled.
“I said, ‘Why don’t you take my name off of the church books?’ I didn’t think I was a good reflection on the church,” he said. “I always have held Adventism in high regard.”
As a rock promoter and as his conscience shifted, Ehm took it upon himself to accompany band members to narcotics anonymous meetings, he said, although he declined to name names for privacy’s sake.
“It blew me away how many famous actors and rock and rollers were going,” he said.
Other jobs Ehm said he held along the road included selling cars, running a top-performing U-Haul dealership, peddling insurance until he found the agency’s dishonest approach revolting, hawking Harleys, driving a cab by night in Aspen, Colorado, after the partaking of the glamorous side of skiing by day and as a house parent for the state of Wisconsin.
After tracking his biological father down and meeting him when he was 26, he became absorbed in helping run “Big Bob” Bekkela’s string of adult strip clubs and massage parlors in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, and Utah.
Having had groupies throughout his rock career, he resisted at first, explaining, “With groupies, I could get on the bus and say goodbye. I couldn’t imagine being locked down being a DJ in the corner of a club.”
Eventually joining the chain with his dad and half-brothers, Ehm said he transformed a dive sex club in North Little Rock, Arkansas, from being filthy and infested with drugs into respectable adult club, with cleaner surroundings for both patrons and the topless dancers.
After several years in the business, he wrestled with questions and observations:
Oddly enough, as he drove home from the club one night in 2005, feeling burned out and scuffling with his conscience, he asked himself, “Am I vain? The answer I got back — and I know it was God — was ‘You’re the vainest one of all. You’re the worst sinner.’”
At home, he said, “I opened a Corona and pulled out the rolling tray to twist up a fatty.”
Unable to find anything intriguing on the television, he settled in to watch a minister’s sermon.
“Come on,” he dared the TV preacher, “save this boy for Jesus.”
Having believed that Ben Franklin had coined the phrase “vanity, vanity, all is vanity,” Ehm was stunned to hear the preacher attribute it to King Solomon in Ecclesiastes.
“The preacher talked about the world and how people are narcissistic. I realized I was narcissistic,” he recounted. “I didn’t drink the beer, and I didn’t smoke the pot. The Bible had spoken to me.”
Ehm also acquiesced to his mother’s request that he pray for her in her battle with cancer, a religious exercise he previously had deemed himself unworthy to do.
He ventured outside, onto a frozen lake, and pleaded with God not only to spare his mother the pain of cancer and chemotherapy but also to show him the road to redemption.
“For an hour, I cried out, snot coming from my nose and freezing,” he said.
Ehm said his mother’s death that year was a pivotal point in his life, with her steady example as a faith-filled, Bible-studying Christian.
“When I prayed to God, I realized there was a happiness, a peace, in knowing where my life was going. I sold my Harleys, my guns, and my music stuff so I could go to school,” he said. “On Dec. 31, 2005, I was walking into the unknown by faith.
“My God is good. I don’t see him only as God, but more as a father,” he said.
He returned to school and earned a four-year degree while studying evangelism.
Two years ago, his life took another turn when he married Obeida, a Colombian woman he met online, in a ceremony in Italy.
Settled now into shepherding nearly 400 souls in the four Adventist churches he ministers to in the Coulee Region, he said, “If you would have told me years ago I would become a Christian, and an evangelist here in La Crosse, I would have said, ‘Oh, shut up. Don’t talk to me about Jesus. Give me a beer and twist one up.’”
Ehm said his ministry is founded on “my interest in people. I see a lot of people in pain, and I want to help. I want to be a pastor for health. Evangelism makes me tick — bringing people into a relationship with Jesus and bringing people into a relationship with the Bible, to see that it is not just stories.”
Congregation members appreciate their pastor.
“I think his background — what he has been in the world and done a lot of worldly things — and finding the Lord shows the world doesn’t mean anything,” said Adventist Judy Hallingstad of La Crosse.
“He’s so full of life,” she said. “He’s had a lot of challenges, but he’s going full bore. He’s reading, he’s studying the Bible, teaching the truth.
“People are people wherever you go, and I like people who have turned their lives to the Lord,” Hallingstad said.
The 67-year-old Hallingstad said she was born and raised Catholic but the biblical thrust of Seventh-day Adventism prompted her to join the denomination 35 years ago.
“I am amazed at the truth in the Bible,” she said. “I have faith in Jesus, not in Seventh-day Adventism. This is the only congregation where I find that truth. Once you find a belief, you don’t look back.
“We are supposed to be lights to the world, and I attend because I want my light to shine,” she said.
Also endorsing Ehm is Larry LaSeure, one of the La Crosse church’s four head elders, who said, “He’s a good Christian.”
Ehm’s background also is an inspiration rather than a demerit, LaSeure said, adding, “I think it helps what he brings. He’s done everything and tried everything. I know I’ve done things, too.”
LaSeure, a 60-year-old retired medical photographer, is a lifelong Adventist who converted to Catholicism because his fiancée was a Catholic who wanted to be married in the church, he said.
“I never practiced it, though,” he said, and took refuge in alcohol after they divorced.
“I was going through a quart of booze a day,” he said. “One night, I was going down the street to the bar, like I always did, and I heard a voice say, ‘Go ahead, do what you want, but I’ll have to leave you.’”
LaSeure said he spun on his heel, headed home and hasn’t had a drink in the nearly 20 years since.
“I couldn’t turn my back any longer,” he said. “Not that I’m an angel — I’ve still done a lot of things.”
The fact that the congregation accepted Ehm after a vote is testimony to their belief in his leadership, LaSeure said.
“He has a personal touch that’s so important for a pastor,” he said.
Ehm explained that attitude, saying, “A relationship with Christ is personal. If somebody dies for you, that’s personal. Jesus met me where I was at.
“When you are fitted with God’s goggles, you see the world in a different way,” Ehm said. “I realize what God has done in my life, and now, God is taking me on the best tour I’ve ever been on.”