During 28 years as a Sears appliance repairman in southeast Kansas, Vic Olmstead often composed songs and wrote lyrics while traveling to jobs in his repair truck.
“I’d be driving to fix a television, and music started playing in my head,” recalls Olmstead, 65, a self-taught musician. “People probably thought I was crazy driving down the highway singing my heart out.”
Today, Olmstead’s music has found an appreciative audience, especially each December when the composer presents an original Christmas cantata as a gift to his hometown of Arkansas City, Kansas.
This month, for the 14th consecutive year, Olmstead will direct the choir at Central Christian Church in a cantata—comprised of seven to 10 original songs—to celebrate the biblical story of Christmas.
“I’m just the servant writing it all down,” says Olmstead, the church’s music director. “I’ve been given this gift of music that tells the story of Jesus’ birth. He came to turn on the light of peace, which is what I hope the cantata encourages others to do.”
The joyous production features dozens of robed singers and professional and volunteer instrumentalists as Olmstead directs his cantata with the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas morning.
“He gets so excited, he can hardly contain himself,” says Nancy Warren, 62, who sings alto in the choir.
The event draws a capacity crowd to Central Christian Church for what has become an important community tradition.
“Lots of churches do Christmas cantatas, but they buy the music from a publisher somewhere,” says the Rev. Dennis Voth, 56, the church’s pastor. “To have the distinction of being able to offer our own original production, that’s pretty special.”
Olmstead has loved music since his mother taught him to play the family’s upright piano as a boy. Today, he composes on a Kimball Spinet and a Yamaha keyboard. He also plays banjo and guitar.
“Writing the Christmas cantata is how Vic exhibits his faith,” says his wife Judy, 63, vice president of a local community bank. “He works on it all year long, even during commercials when we’re watching TV. He starts composing in January, soon after the last one finishes.”
Olmstead says composing a different cantata each year to celebrate the unchanging Christmas story can be challenging, but that “God works in mysterious ways” by inspiring a phrase or melody to get him started.
The musical arrangements are written by Stephen Butler, 40, the music director at neighboring First Baptist Church of Arkansas City. “He’s brilliant,” Olmstead says about his treasured collaborator. “I could give him ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ and he’d come back with the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’!”
The resulting production is a blessing for townspeople, including choir members who begin practicing on the cantata each October.
“His songs are always so cheerful and jazzy,” says Shirley Morrison, 79, who sings soprano. “You get so enthused that it’s hard not to start dancing.”
Listeners feel the same way. “Every year I think it can’t possibly be better than last year’s, and every year Vic proves me wrong,” says Toni Trester, 57, a retired nurse who hasn’t missed a cantata.
As for motorists who wondered why the Sears repairman was singing so enthusiastically en route to his appointments, they can rest easy. Olmstead retired from Sears in 2010.
“Now, I hear music while riding the lawnmower,” he says.