Painting by Emmett Johns of Fish Creek, WI
They said goodbye to Norbert Blei the other day.
On a crisp day, friends and family gathered at the open-air Peninsula Players Theater for a memorial service that featured readings, tributes, songs, laughter and tears.
It was a touching and fitting tribute to Blei, a Chicago-born author who packed his Windy City roots when he moved to this vacation land in 1969.
“He wrote about the characters in this place, and then he became one,’’ said Michael Brecke, pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Juddville.
“And where the hell is Juddville?’’ Blei once remarked wryly from behind his penetrating eyes and walrus-like mustache.
A literary descendant of Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel and Mike Royko, Blei wrote 17 books of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and essays. He also taught and nurtured aspiring writers.
“Norb was about people, about life, about place, about story,’’ said Marianne Ritzer, his first assistant when he founded Cross + Roads Press, which was dedicated to publishing the works of fledgling writers.
Blei died on April 23 in Sister Bay, near his home in Ellison Bay, after a two-year battle with cancer. He was 77.
“I loved his words,’’ Door County musician and friend Julian Hagen said. “I loved his voice. I loved his mustache.’’
Born in Chicago, Blei grew up on the West Side and in Cicero. After graduating from Illinois State, he was a high school teacher in the Chicago area before he moved to Door County with his wife and two young children to continue his writing career.
In the ’90s, he briefly became a figure of controversy with his “Shut the Damn Door’’ campaign, an outrageous, anti-tourist, anti-development proposal. But his true passion was for all things literary, with a dash of painting on the side.
“He’d write cards and mail them to me,’’ his daughter, Bridget Buff, said during her tear-filled remembrance, “even though we lived in the same house.’’
His nickname was “Coyote,’’ and musician Pete Thelen celebrated Blei’s brashness with fresh lyrics to “Sweet Home Chicago’’ that included the chorus, “3 and 6 is 9, 9 and 9 is 18, he left the Windy City for the country scene. Hey, Coyote, don’t you want to go? Back to that same old place, Door County, his home?’’
From his adult Door County home, Blei did some of his best work writing about his childhood in Chicago, describing ethnic neighborhoods and their proud first-generation residents with a stark, true resonance. He wrote about their work, their dreams, their World War II struggles, their zest for life and their flaws.
And he did it with a spare, understated style that showed the influence of Hemingway, a fellow Chicago native.
“He was probably the most dedicated writer I ever saw,’’ said Albert DeGenova, a Chicago poet and publisher who first met Blei at the Clearing, a Door County retreat where Blei taught an annual workshop.
A close friend of Royko, Blei first met the late Chicago newspaperman at the old City News Bureau, where they worked the night shift together. The Pulitzer Prize winner often visited Blei in Door County, marveling at the gregarious coffee talk that would take place at Al Johnson’s, the well-known Swedish restaurant that was to Blei what Billy Goat’s was to Royko.
There’s even a goat connection. Tourists flock to Al Johnson’s to see goats eat the grass on the roof of the restaurant.
“I’m sure there’s a coffee table in heaven,’’ said Al’s daughter, Annika Johnson, who brought a goat with her onstage when she paid tribute to Blei. “And I know Norb will elbow his way in and take over.’’ — Herb Gould, July 8, 2013 9:30AM