THE VOTE: Norbert Blei & the Door Reminder | by Myles Dannhausen

8 12 2014
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Norbert Blei 1937 – 2013

Over 25 years ago, a now-defunct tabloid gave writer Norbert Blei (1937-2013) his own ‘bloody pulpit’ to “write whatever he wanted, unedited and uncensored,” in the words of the publisher. For a brief moment, local journalism mattered more deeply to Door County residents than anyone could have imagined.

by Myles Dannhausen

In the fall of 1988, Norbert Blei was a decorated writer who claimed bylines in the Chicago Tribune, the Milwaukee Journal, and the Washington Post, but the man who wrote from the cozy confines of an Ellison Bay chicken coop no longer had a microphone in his own community. Nearly a decade had passed since he had fallen out with the Door County Advocate when he reached an agreement to write a weekly column for Lon Kopitzke’s weekly shopper, the Door Reminder.

It would take him less than four months to wear out his welcome. His first Blei At Large column was published Oct. 3 1988, his last on Jan. 24, 1989.

It was a time of transformation for Door County. It seemed each sunrise brought the groundbreaking of a new condominium, shopping center, or gallery. Blei, who fled Chicago in 1969 and retreated to the remotest of wooded cabins in Ellison Bay, was not enthusiastic about the county’s economic development.

He saw the arrival of condominiums as a death knell, a scourge from which the peninsula would never recover. But his criticisms didn’t end with developers. Blei attacked the influx of new galleries dotting the villages and spewed vitriol at anything that upset his rustic vision of the county – a purple building, a bright blue newspaper box hinged to mailboxes (the Bluebonic Box Plague), or, really, just about anything new.

He became a vocal, angry, scathing critic of the changes afoot and the businesses and people behind them. Not surprisingly, Blei’s broadsides created problems for Kopitzke’s weekly shopper, as advertisers pulled out and Kopitzke’s personal relationships suffered strain.

Keep-HimDump-Him.19959.350x0.0With his bottom line suffering, Kopitzke devised a way to deal with the problem without actually having to deal with the problem. He put it to a vote – should Blei’s column stay, or should it go?

Before Norb died in April 2013, I talked to him at length about the about the controversy that captivated the peninsula and garnered write-ups in the Denver Post, Milwaukee Journal, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and other publications across the country. On a long September afternoon in his coop in September of 2012, Blei still found the episode as hilarious – and enraging – as he did 24 years earlier.

I also caught up with Kopitzke and Steve Grutzmacher, owner of Sister Bay’s now-shuttered Passtimes Books and the man who would take Blei’s place at the Reminder. Here’s the story of Blei’s scorched-earth assault on the Door, in their words.

Lon Kopitzke approached Blei about writing a column for him, and the writer was intrigued – but he’d agree only with certain conditions.

Lon Kopitzke: We came to a mutual agreement – I agreed to pay him a certain amount each week, and he could write whatever he wanted, unedited and uncensored.

Norb Blei: Lon Kopitzke, he didn’t know what I was doing. I could just fly. I got away with murder there.

Steve Grutzmacher (at the time, a Door Reminder ad salesman): His writing in the Reminder was very different from his writing at the Advocate. He created an angry voice he utilized to rile things up, particularly things he perceived were wrong with Door County. Norb was making very valid points. For years Norb kind of functioned as the conscience of Door County. He was the only person out there raising many of the concerns, giving voice to it to a wider audience.

Blei mocked businesses by referring to them with thinly veiled pseudonyms, like the Dontwanna Theater (the Donna), the Aggravate (the Door County Advocate), or Les B. Greedy, his moniker for then-Chamber president Bob Hastings, who Blei ridiculed for wanting to extend the tourism season.

SG: In good rhetorical tradition, writing inflammatory prose is fine if the next week you write a straight essay to reinforce the point. Norb never did that. Norb relished being the angry voice and he relished the attention that it got him.

NB: I enjoyed the ride.

SG: In his heyday when he was stirring up all the controversy, I don’t think that Norb ever really grasped the big picture, what the economic realities of Door County were, in the sense that we have to have tourists and they have to come in the summer. All the things he loves about Door County only exist because we get the tourists in the summer. I don’t think Norb fully appreciated that.

“Begin with a freeze on all building within the county, all property sales, all residential, commercial, and public planning immediately. The next logical move would be to turn the whole county over to Nature Conservancy and let that fine organization save us from ourselves.” – Norb Blei, Shut the Damned Door

Blei-In-Memoriam.19960.mediumresize.0NB: When the first condo went up in Ephraim, I made some comments. I was naïve enough to think that there were enough people in the county that could see the threat out there in terms of cracking the golden egg. Out and out raw tourism was what killed me. Then it was the condo craze, then it was shops and galleries galore. And I thought this place was a lot more than that. I tried to point out the places that people didn’t pay attention to. I would have to go the extreme to get people to wake up. Obviously we can’t get rid of the galleries, but where should they be, what kind, what’s the quality?

LK: He was ripping the Chamber of Commerce to a point, and some of the personnel even. It was very hard. I could hardly wait to see what he was going to write. Then sometimes I had doubts if we could actually go through with it because it was so outrageous. There were all kinds of people wondering what kind of outlandish things he would write that particular week.

NB: Lon claimed he was losing advertisers because of what I wrote.

LK: In most cases, the people I spoke to face-to-face were probably supporting him. But the people who were opposed to him wouldn’t tell me directly; they would just cancel their ad.

SG: It reached a point where not just one or two advertisers were telling Lon they were pulling their ads, it was a cascade of advertisers pulling ads and threatening to pull their ads. I’m not sure that Norb ever believed there were all these advertisers pulling. It was a ton (I was there at the time). And it was a shopper! It was all about ads, period.

Kopitzke says he suggested to Blei that he do more than criticize, that he put legitimate ideas on the table to add credibility to his argument. He refused.

NB: A writer has enough to do just trying to get his words out there and past people like Dave Eliot [publisher of the Peninsula Pulse and Door County Living, for whom Blei wrote briefly] and other editors. I always take my hat off to people who work on committees. The thing is I cannot do that. I will not do that. I don’t have the time. Ed Abbey was the same way. You weren’t going to find him on an environmental council. That’s your mission. You write the bomb and say, all right you guys, you take care of it.

SG: He never felt it was his position. He has the perverse notion that it is solely his responsibility to raise public awareness as a writer and a journalist, not to actively do anything about them himself. He came out of the news desk at the City News Bureau in Chicago. I’m not saying he’s wrong in this necessarily. Mike Royko was never actively involved in trying to correct problems he wrote about, but it’s a different approach than we’re used to in Door County. We have the good fortune of having people willing to get involved. For old-school journalists the responsibility was to report, and allow other people to take the next steps and then report on that.

Kopitzke began feeling pressure from advertisers and friends about Blei’s column, but he insists there wasn’t much he could do to change Blei’s style. Kopitzke added a disclaimer to Blei’s columns to distance the publication from Blei, which the writer hated. When Blei introduced a fictional secretary, a former porn star named Lovta DuMore X, to answer reader letters, Kopitzke received complaints from clergymen and threats of boycotts.

Door-Way.19961.350x0.0LK: I personally agreed with a lot of what he wrote, but in some cases, like when he was ripping Christianity, well I couldn’t understand that. I let him know when something was over the top, but it didn’t stifle him in the slightest. He was his own man and he was going to write what he wanted.

SG: Norb never makes it easy for people to work with him, never has. Lon was never able to grow past the notion that no matter how hard you try not everybody is going to love you. Lon couldn’t bring himself to outright fire Norb, so he had a vote.

LK: I never talked to him about stopping his column. I didn’t want to have that conversation with him. So I decided to have a vote, but he didn’t know about the ballot until it came out in print.

Dear Norb, with pen in hand, you should be considered armed and dangerous. – Lon Kopitzke, in his column announcing the vote on Norb Blei’s column

The final tally had 171 votes for keeping Blei, and 221 against.

SG: I don’t know who tabulated that vote. I’m not sure it ever was counted, but the upshot for the Reminder was that Norb was voted out.

LK: I counted them. But of course, I already had my mind made up. That’s when the letters started coming. They were pissed off that he was gone. A lot of people who didn’t much like what he wrote about still found him so provoking that they loved his style. He just went too far sometimes.

Kopitzke and Blei barely spoke in the years to follow.

LK: It’s been a long time. In fact, if I don’t speak first I don’t think he’d speak to me at all. At the time he was just pissed off. I guess there wasn’t too much to discuss.

More than two decades after Blei earned Door County’s most famous firing, a reading of his columns still shocks. It’s not surprising that Blei/ AT LARGE didn’t last.

But many of his predictions proved prophetic. It’s too bad we didn’t listen more closely – or perhaps it’s too bad Blei turned so many people off. In one column he criticized the development of the Country Walk Mall in Sister Bay.

The future is not the shopping mall… The future is the rediscovery of Main Street U.S.A. – Norb Blei, The Do/Remind and its Hired Gun Talk Turkey, 1988

Twenty-five years later the Village of Sister Bay is still trying to lure investment back to the downtown corridor where the grocery store, furniture store, and other businesses once thrived.

SG: Much of what Norb put out there was just fighting change, not accepting that things change. People retire and come up here and think Door County isn’t supposed to change, that we should never change a single thing until they die.

Blei, the Chicagoan, became Door County’s chronicler, most famously with his book, “Door Way.” It’s an ode to the characters of the peninsula, to the people so often overlooked.

Blei was historian, critic, rabble-rouser, and begrudging promoter. But because of his unwillingness to compromise (some would say listen), he burned, no, torched bridges at every publication he worked for – the Door County Advocate, the Door Reminder, the Peninsula Pulse.

As a result, the county’s pre-eminent writer found himself without a willing publisher for much of his Door County career. Could he have made a bigger difference had he toned it down a bit, given people a little slack, and tried to see things through other people’s eyes at least a bit?

From his seat in that cluttered chicken coop, surrounded by stacks of unfinished writings, books, magazines and old newspapers, Blei reflected on those opportunities lost, coming close to humility for a moment.

Chronicles-of-a-Rural-JournNB: I’ve thought about that, but you make too many compromises. I could have contributed so much good writing through the Advocate and the Pulse, but I cannot do it with people who don’t trust me. [Blei was not a fan of editors, particularly those he doesn’t believe have his level of knowledge, which was pretty much all of them.] You know what’s the best newspaper in the county – the Washington Island Observer. They got their sense of community, they know what their stories are, they know what their people are.

Today, Blei admits that he wasn’t right about everything.

NB: Regret? I’m sure I said some harsh things about people or businesses that I didn’t have the right to do that. I don’t regret anything I said about the Reminder. Lon was a decent guy but I felt he was in over his head. Over time I realized they did the right thing with the Ephraim Condominiums, which I criticized heavily at the time. They put it set back, away from the water. I don’t regret going after condos, but I realize that that one was a much better building than the ones that were to come.

What surprised me is this. I always thought these things would be the death of the county, and yet, the county survives. That’s the one lesson of all this time. The thing that surprised me is that in spite of all this stuff, there’s an essential core to this landscape that seems almost untouchable. If I want to get away from it all, I know just what roads to find. The center of the county remains. It’s never been developed. There’s the island. People are still doing dumb things, like buying 60 acres and putting up a home, but we’ve got more people from the city with a higher consciousness that appreciate this place.

I’ve always been trying to make people see what they have here.

Working in a converted chicken coop north of Ellison Bay, the late writer Norbert Blei chronicled Door County, Wisconsin through the lives of its inhabitants for over 40 years. A newly-revised edition of DOOR WAY: The People in the Landscape, the first book in Blei’s “Door Series,” was published this past June 2013 by Ellis Press. Books by Norbert Blei are available at Peninsula Bookman (Fish Creek), Main Street Market (Egg Harbor), Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant (Sister Bay) and The Pioneer Store (Ellison Bay). To read the original Blei At Large columns described in this article, pick up a copy of Chronicles of a Rural Journalist in America, available from bookseller Charlie Calkins (262.894.6572, email: wibooks@yahoo.com).





Vesecky’s Keeps the Bohemian Bakery Alive in Berwyn by Mike Gebert

14 07 2014

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Photo by Mike Gebert

Vesecky’s Keeps the Bohemian Bakery Alive in Berwyn by Mike Gebert Apr 2, 2014

On the wall of Vesecky’s Bakery in Berwyn there’s a framed Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine piece from 1971, by the writer and poet Norbert Blei, who grew up in this area (and died last year in Door County):

Book cover showing Vesecky’s

There are almost as many bakeries along Cermak Road in Cicero and Berwyn as savings and loans… Nobody knows what it is between Bohemians and their bakery. They just never seem to get enough of it… No matter how many housky, or kolacky, or coffeecakes are on the table Saturday morning, someone in the family will usually be told, “Stop at Vesecky’s (or Fingerhut’s or Vales’ or Stetina’s or Minarik’s) for some Bohemian rye… maybe a poppyseed Babovka, too.”

Hardly a word of it remains the case 40 years later. Berwyn and Cicero are increasingly Mexican, all those other bakeries are gone, and the association between savings and loans and Bohemians (aka Czechs and Hungarians) is incomprehensible today. (Bohemians, despite their association with careless Parisian artists thanks to a certain opera, were notoriously the tightest bank customers in Chicago, impossible to sell credit cards or installment loans to; as an officer at the late Talman Federal Savings and Loan once told me, the Bohemian version of buying on time was “If you want a refrigerator, you save for ten years until you have the money to buy it.”)

And yet Vesecky’s Bakery survives. Old Man Vesecky, James Sr., 62 when Blei wrote about him, passed away in 2005 at 97, and the frantic overnight baking scene Blei describes had surely calmed down long before. Today it’s a quiet place, a couple of young female sales assistants serving the customers. But someone who knows the place’s heritage must still be in the back, cranking out both Czech apple srudl with its flat crust:

Surprisingly, it was the simplest thing, houska, that I think proved the most satisfying in the end. It’s basically raisin bread, but with brandy-soaked raisins, I think, and a dough made with milk and egg (close to challah or a less rich brioche). Simple, as befits a people who watched a buck like it was Dillinger planning an escape, yet completely satisfying. As long as you can swing by Vesecky’s for that, Norbert Blei’s world isn’t completely gone.

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Norbert Blei | A Father’s Dilemma, Where Can My Son Grow Up Happy?

14 06 2014
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Norbert Blei with son Christopher Blei and daughter Bridget Buff

A Father’s Dilemma, Where Can My Son Grow Up Happy?

YOU TAKE a kid away from an apartment house on the west-side of Chicago at the age of 5 and plunk him in the middle of 15 acres of woods and fields of Wisconsin and tell yourself, “There, now let nature do it’s work. Let the kid grow green and clean. Give him a boyhood of space and natural wonder that I never had. Save him, 0 Lord, from suburban abundance, a city’s compulsions.”

And in time, you begin to wonder in his wonder. By the age of 8, the kid knows some of the soft green machinery of earth, like the taste and private habitat of wild strawberries and blackberries; the temptation of tea made of wild roses; boiling milkweed ketis for vegetables, an old Menominee Indian secret.

AND HE can tell an English sparrow from a fox sparrow, and identify all manner of birds . . . chickadees, thrashers, towees, rose-breasted grosbeaks, purple finches, nut hatches, hawks, every kind of woodpecker. I could tell a robin from a sparrow, when I was a boy, in Chicago and had heard some talk of a blue jay.

Give him any season, and there’s sure to be something brewing in this earth.

Spring, and the tree swallows come back to nest in the houses on the birch trees out front; the towees take up their secret nesting sights in the bushes in the back. “Do the same birds come back every year? How do they find our house?” I don’t know, I don’t know. They just keep coming back.

SUMMER, and you plant a sunflower seed and see it plow five feet before your eyes, and watch it track the sun. Fall, and you catch black and white and yellow caterpillars on the underside of milkweed leaves, and you put them in a jar, and you watch the caterpillar move to the top, in time, and form a fantastic green house, about himself, and then watch for that house to turn transparent, and watch for the orange wings and old black patterns to glow brighter till the wings are free. And then you open the jar and set a monarch butterly free. Magic.

Winter, you keep the birds alive with sunflower seeds, you see the tracks of deer in a garden now under snow,  you see a red fox move across  a landscape in white  and,  maybe, you never forget a  picture like that. You hold onto that like a painting, ‘Fox in Snow’, the rest of your life.

But In time, you begin to  wonder in the wonder of it all. Is to be a father, to be in doubt? . . . “The  woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to  keep . . .and miles to go  before I sleep. . . .”

The kid can tell a birch from a maple, but does he  know what a corner lot is like, where you set traps and build forts and hold all manner of meetings in secret clubs with all the kids on the block? No. . . The kid knows perch from bass and is a better fisherman than his father ever will be, but does he know the summer games kids play in the dark, after the streetlamps have gone on? No.

DOES HE know how to chant “Ole, Ole, Ocean Free!”? No. Does he know how to lag pennies, play marbles, throw a rubber ball against concrete steps with just himself and a friend and play a whole nine inning ball game? No. Does he know how to win? Does he know how to lose?

And does he know what it means to grow up with a friend, the kid next door or  across the street? To go to school with him, to show with him, to work with him? To know his family as your own? To keep such a friendship [and many of them] alive for over 20 years? No. And very likely he never will. There is just too much distance between friends in the country.He has one or two, about three miles away. And so friendship is not an everyday, ever growing thing in the country.

AND HAS he ever been introduced to alleys? Those cracked concrete [asphalt, brick, or stone] runways that go on and on [north and south usually] and, lead to either more of the same, or great streets of business? No.

Alleys, for playing baseball, football, basketball, ice skating, roller skating, hop scotch, walking, running, chasing, throwing, hiding, junking, climbing trees and telephone poles, climbing fences, climbing garages.

Whatever your fancy, whatever your fantasy… it can be worked out in the alley.

“Do it in the alley!” … a Mother’s last resort.

And so, what for my son? I wonder, I wonder…

I can give him a bike, but I can’t give him a wire basket attached and a newspaper route. I can’t give him ten kids in the alley playing kick-the-can. I can give him a solitary swing tied to a magnificent maple, but I can’t give him a real playground. I can give him an occasional movie [80 miles away, round trip] but I can’t give him a Saturday afternoon matinee at the neighborhood show, fresh popcorn, and a carmel candy bar.

And zoos, museums, concerts, buses, trains, skyscrapers, freight yards, air ports, great bridges, department stores, elevators, escalators, neon lights, uncles, aunts, grandmas, grandpas, hot dog stands, and McDonald burgers are out of the question.

I CAN GIVE him books and music and paints, and everything nature has to offer beyond our kitchen door . . . the geese now flying overhead, the purple asters starred along the roadside, the sugar maples turning radically red by the hour.

I can give him all this, but what will it all add up to for him? And when? I’m afraid he does not know black from white. Is this good? I’m afraid he does not know the machinery of a city, the poetry, and tragedy of streets. Is this bad? He saw poverty once in a camp of migrant cherry pickers and said, “Dad, I don’t like what poor is. Dad, I don’t ever want to be poor.” Is this good?

I can give him a morning so blue and gold he can taste it. I can give him a night with such a moon and so many stars, he can touch them. I can give him all this for the time being, and only hope it will stay with him forever . . . or 20 years from now, when , he may need such luxuries.

I can give him all the time in the world to be alone, in the silence of it all.

But I can’t give him a friend from next door, standing on the sidewalk, calling for him to come out and play. And that is the sound I remember most, and the way it was with me. And I can only wonder how it will be for him.

Chicago Tribune, Sunday, December 10, 1972 BY NORBERT BLEI





Gregg Cebrzynski on Norbert Blei

17 10 2013

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He was one of my favorite writers, and he died on April 23 at the age of 77.

Norbert Blei grew up in my neighborhood of Little Village in Chicago, a neighborhood primarily of Czechs, with a smaller German population and an even smaller Polish population. You wouldn’t believe how wonderful the restaurants and bakeries and butcher shops were.

I met him once, at a book signing he did in 1987 for his collection of essays titled “Neighborhood.” It’s mainly about the town of Cicero, where the Blei family moved to when Norbert was young. Cicero is just west of Chicago, and as a young man I went there often to eat at the Czech restaurants. A lot of my neighbors moved to Cicero when Little Village became dangerous to live in, thanks to the increasing street gangs and their habit of shooting at rival gang members, often missing and killing the innocent.

Norbert moved to Door County, Wisconsin, in 1968, but before that he had been a freelance writer in Chicago for many years. His stories about the city and its famous, and obscure, citizens are examples of writing that when I read them I marveled at his command of the language and how he was able capture a person’s character. There was nothing sentimental about it; Blei was a rare journalist who knew how to tell a story without embellishment, and his subject’s personality would shine through in his or her own words.

He also wrote short-stories, collected in a book titled “The Ghost of Sandburg’s Phizzog.” He wrote books about Door County, my favorites being “Door Steps” and “Door Way.” They were published by Ellis Press. In 1990 he wrote a book about Chicago called “Chi Town,” with chapters on such memorable people as Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, Sydney J. Harris and Bill Mauldin, the famous editorial cartoonist who created the sad-sack GI’s “Willie and Joe” during World War II.

I talked with him at the book signing, about how I grew up in Little Village and was well-acquainted with all the shops and restaurants there that he mentioned in his book, as well as the places in Cicero he wrote about, especially Vasecky’s Bakery. We also talked about the novelist James Jones and how much we both admired his grasp of how people thought and acted on their beliefs, and of course we agreed that Jones was the best writer who depicted World War II and the effect it had on ordinary men, draftees suddenly thrown into battle.

So many of the writers I admired when I was young–Jones, Vonnegut, Styron, Irwin Shaw, Willie Morris, Graham Greene, and now Blei–are gone. It makes me tremendously sad.– Gregg Cebrzynski – May 22, 2013

greggGregg Cebrzynski

I’m the author of “The Champagne Ladies,” a novel. I’m also a long-time journalist who’s won awards for writing, editing and photography. I grew up in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago and now live on the city’s North Side. Despite that, I’m an avid White Sox fan. But I like football more than baseball. Also, pork more than chicken, and I would eat roast beef every day if it wasn’t so expensive. Many people have a personal philosophy, but I do not. However, I go through life remembering the words of Jean Shepherd, who once wrote: “Madness. All is madness.”








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