Myles Dannhausen Jr. | An Afternoon in the Coop

16 12 2014

Myles Dannhausen Jr. | A Bridge in Progress | Norb Blei and the pursuit of the writer’s life
Norb Blei is the subject of a lengthy feature in the latest edition of Wisconsin People & Ideas, the magazine of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences Arts and Letters. In it, Door County native and longtime Peninsula Pulse contributor Myles Dannhausen Jr. examines the deep-rooted conviction to craft that made Blei a much-admired writer and teacher, but also the stubborn streak that cost the native Chicagoan a platform and opportunities later in his career. Here Dannhausen recounts the visit to the Coop that lead to the story.

To read Dannhausen’s “A Bridge in Progress,” click here>>

Blei on his own turf in Ellison Bay, Door County, standing in front of a sign welcoming—or, considering the coyote, possibly warning away—visitors to his converted chicken coop writer’s studio. -- Photo by John Nelson

Blei on his own turf in Ellison Bay, Door County, standing in front of a sign welcoming—or, considering the coyote, possibly warning away—visitors to his converted chicken coop writer’s studio. — Photo by John Nelson


I met Norb Blei too late.

At 32, I had grown restless and claustrophobic in my hometown community of Door County. I knew that I needed to grow as a writer, so I left for a city that had pulled at me as long as I could remember: Chicago.

Forty-three years earlier, at almost the same age, Blei had suffered from a similar anxiety while living in Chicago. Only his pull was to Door County, where he felt he could write what he wanted to, the way he wanted to.

Somehow, I had never met Norb, at least not formally. He occasionally sat on a Husby’s barstool as I filled frosty mugs, and more than once I passed him as he held court at the Al Johnson’s coffee table with Al and their crew of old friends. They were starting their days, I was ending my nights.

But we never spoke one-on-one until September of 2012, when I drove up from Chicago and visited him in his Ellison Bay coop.

By then, sadly, he was wasting away. He had beaten esophageal cancer, but the remnants of that fight were stealing pieces of him every day. His appetite was gone, and the man who once filled out his trench coat so ably now wore clothes that fit him like worn hand-me-downs from a much bigger brother.

Still, he rose each morning from his bed in that cedar shake cabin in the woods, amidst walls stacked to the ceiling with books, in a house still not isolated enough for him to find the authentic writing he sought all his life. So he trudged out, across his gravel driveway, into his famous coop.

He was already sitting at his computer when I knocked tentatively on the coop door. I was nervous. Blei’s temper was known to flare, and he had recently pushed another young interviewer to tears when he determined that she was ignorant of his work.

He welcomed me in, and sitting in his chair he was the textbook vision of a writer. His hair white, his mustache giving him a walrus visage that made his expression difficult to read. Is that a smile or a smirk? Is he mulling, or is he angry?

In the coop on that September Sunday in 2012, squeezed amongst stacks of books, magazines, and newspapers, Blei’s stubbornness was displayed as urgency. There were books to be finished, writers to nurture, stories waiting for his pen. His verbal ticks were those of a writer’s mind scattered:

“I’d like to write a book about…”

“I’m going to write a story about…”

“I wish I had interviewed…”

“I’d like to get Ingert to write her thoughts down…”

He was struggling to make progress now, his writing hours shorter and shorter as he fought his self-made distractions and father time. He loved “this Internet thing,” fascinated that, as the market for books faded, he was in greater touch with his readers than ever before. His typewriter was gone, replaced by a computer and large external monitor, the new marks of the modern writer.

His face lit up as we talked about the greatest firestorm of his career, when he railed against development in Door County in a short-lived tenure as a columnist at the Door Reminder.

“I could just fly,” he said. “I got away with murder there.”

More than two decades later he remained an angry journalist, desperate to see the pot stirred, the comfortable made uncomfortable, complacency turned to argument. “Who’s writing about poverty?” he said. “Who’s covering the county board?!? Nobody! There are no journalists anymore.”

As he railed, I couldn’t help but wonder why he wasn’t among them. Why he couldn’t just work well enough with others to take on some of these issues himself. But that was Norb, the Coyote firing from the outside in, where he felt he could make the biggest impact.

Now he was determined to finish dozens of projects left undone. Some of these projects were just empty folders on the desktop of his computer, little more than a file with a title inside. Others were represented in piles of hand-written notes and ideas gathering dust in the large stacks of books and papers that surrounded his desk.

Norb was not finished with us yet.

When the September sun was fading on my visit to the coop, it was clear Norb needed a break. He walked me out to his driveway with a pit-stop at his car. There he carried the true mark of a Midwestern writer – a trunk full of copies of his books, ready to hustle.

He gave me copies of each, and we spent a few minutes on his stoop as he told me of the time Mike Royko, the legendary Chicago columnist, visited him here.

We talked about catching up in Chicago sometime. I wanted him to take me down to his old neighborhood, Cicero, for a stroll. Blei was enthusiastic, said he needed to get back there again. He stood on his stoop and waved as I backed out of the driveway, and after three hours, I could tell there was a smile beneath his mustache.

We traded emails and planned future visits, but his failing health intervened.

After waving goodbye to him on his stoop, I never saw him again. He died in April of 2013.

But for me, and for anyone who dares attempt to write anything of substance about the people and places of Door County, Blei is still here, his shadow looming, his standard beyond our reach.– Myles Dannhausen

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

The interior to Blei’s writer’s studio reflects a man with many ideas and avenues for exploration. - Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

The interior to Blei’s writer’s studio reflects a man with many ideas and avenues for exploration. – Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Dannhausen_mugMyles Dannhausen Jr. is a native of Door County now living in Chicago, just a couple of miles from the neighborhood where author Norb Blei grew up. Dannhausen is a contributing editor for the Peninsula Pulse newspaper and Door County Living, and has also written for Chicago Athlete, Exclusively Yours, Running Times, UltraRunning, and GapersBlock.com. He returns to Door County frequently to work his parents’ garden and serve as course director of the Door County Half Marathon, Peninsula Century Ride, Spring Classic Ride, and organize the Door County Beer Festival.





Warren Bluhm | The spirit of Norbert Blei remains in this place

12 12 2014
Norbert Blei

Ralph Rausch – Photo taken from the back cover “Adventures in an American’s Literature by Norbert Blei – The Ellis Press, 1982

They came to remember; they came to praise; they came to celebrate a man; they came to celebrate this place, and they came to remember the man who described what a special place it was as it was becoming what it is — often with alarm, always with love.

Saturday was a beautiful Door County day, the gardens at Peninsula Players Theatre were growing lush in the early summer sun, and the highways were comfortably filled with travelers on their way to a destination and friends coming here to pay tribute to Norbert Blei, who died April 23 at age 77.

As the Rev. Michael Brecke put it, Blei was a newspaperman, teacher, artist, poet, and critic, “calling us to task when we stopped loving the land and the water in this place,” and a writer.

“He wrote about the characters in this place and then became one,” said Brecke, who also noted Blei’s gravestone reads, “Find me in my books.”

And for an hour or so, they did: Each of the speakers who shared personal experiences about how he had moved their lives also read a bit from his books.

When Tim Stone first came to Door County, he was told by the locals that “if we ever had a prayer of being one of them, we had to read his books.”

And in Blei’s books they found wisdom — Robert Zoschke read “It’s good to pause now and then and see where the hell you were at” and advice not just for writers but all of us — “the important thing is to get the work done.”

They spoke of the man who would write in his converted chicken coop and teach about the writer’s passion at the Clearing and sit at the counter at Al Johnson’s with a cup of coffee, listening and talking.

“I know that there is a coffee table in heaven and I know that they may have a seat for Norb, but I’m sure he’ll elbow his way in and take over in a short time,” said Annika Johnson, who brought along one of the family’s goats named Beelzebub.

“I love his words, I love his voice, I love his mustache,” Julian Hagen said simply before launching into his song “Northern Light,” and Jeanne Kuhns sang “A Song for Norb,” and Pete Thelen and Jay Whitney led a rousing rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” adopted to Door County.

Stone noted that when the Clearing was struggling for survival in 1985, Blei wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune, “Door County’s Clearing: A Secret School in the Woods for Adults,” the reservations began to come in and Jens Jensen’s amazing vision was secured for another generation. There was much talk about the iconic teacher who worked hard to prepare his classes and stayed late at the Clearing to give each aspiring writer personal attention.

But then Bridget Buff came up, and her voice struggled against the tears as she talked about the man who would read to her as she sat in his lap, and make enormous breakfasts and walk her to the bus stop, and mail letters to her even when they lived in the same house, and how “he loved winter and I did not.”

And that was when we remembered the legendary icon was also a man who loved his daughter and his son Christo. The poet who captured the soul and the people of Door County was also a daddy; in fact Norb Blei first came here in 1969 to give them a special place to grow up.

“His home, his heart and his spirit are here forever, and he wouldn’t have it any other way,” Bridget said.

Nor would we.

Warren Bluhm – Wednesday, July 3, 2013





Norb Blei Speaks on “The Courage to Create” with Transcript by Stephen Kastner

10 12 2014

norb-blei-500

Sunday, September 30, 2012, Norb Blei was the last of four individuals to address the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Door County in Ephraim, Wisconsin on “The Courage to Create.” – by Stephen Kastner

The event was comprised of four speakers presenting their thoughts on the creative process as personally experienced by a writer, an artist, a musician and a theologian. They respectively included: Norbert Blei, Chick Peterson, Katie Dahl and Phil Sweet. In essence, Norb Blei presented a recounting of the story of his life. Little did I know, this would be the last time I would ever hear him speak. Norbert Blei (August 23, 1935 – April 23, 2013) wrote 17 books of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and essays. In 1994, he established Cross+Roads Press, dedicated to the publication of first chapbooks by poets, short story writers, novelists and artists. The following is a transcript of the video recording included below:

I guess I’m in a clean-up spot here. Huh? I know some of you are asleep. Stay that way please! I don’t want to try to bother you.

Phil would probably understand, I have a bit of a problem with today’s theme. So, please excuse me for my occasional contrariness, not to mention, off-subject departures at times, trying to wend my way from what we’re supposed to be talking about and all the stuff floating around in this scattered old mind of mine.

Throw an old dog like me a bone called courage, or creativity, or both… and I’ll gnaw it to nothingness in a matter of hours or days. They didn’t used to call me the county curmudgeon or worse for nothing, you know.

I can already hear Phil murmuring to himself, ‘Oh no! But what else could I expect inviting this guy to my party?’

Then, excuse me please if I uh… take Rollo May the author of the “Courage to Create,” somewhat to task and as you see, I have my old dollar-ninety-five cent paperback from nineteen seventy-five which I discovered in my book shelf just days ago, entire passages underlined heavily in black, felt-tipped pen.

I realize too that I never did finish the book but I… (laughter) I can always tell when the last part is free of pen.

I’ll uh just underline passages in heavy black-tipped pen. I’m sure… I swallowed whole every word as a young writer trying to justify his own life unaware of all the years ahead that it would take to actually become a writer, living those years now some fifty years later, still expecting every morning, with little courage, to be born again the instant that I pick up the pen or the pencil or begin to click the keyboard with the hope of magic appearing on the screen keeping in mind as ever, Hemingway’s sound advice, quote “that every writer needs a built-in shit detector to face the world,” reminded as well of Rilke’s sacred words almost carved into the desk where I am staring out the window:

“The purpose of life” said Rilke, “is to be defeated by a greater and greater things.”

Courage? Did you say courage? You want courage? Don’t look to this sorry creative soul. Look instead into the heart of a thirteen-year-old boy, Bo Johnson, who stared death in the eyes every day and was more concerned about making it easier for others knowing that his own time was passing without ever experiencing all the wonder of all the years most of us are granted. Now, that’s courage.

Let me suggest that it doesn’t take courage to create as as much as it does take stupidity, with more than a dash of curiosity, perseverance and what at times becomes mindless compulsion, a certain helplessness, something you can’t do a thing about but eventually accept it for what it is. This is what you do, all you can do. This is who you are and why you were put here. In my case,to write.

So there deal with that. Do what you can with it. See where it takes you. Success, isn’t even a factor. Remember, the purpose of life is to be defeated by a greater and greater things. Begin with whatever words given you at the moment and make them say what you want them to say or need them to say and just try to get better at the job every day.

At this point, I come to you by way of notes, notes and more notes, the writer’s way, nothing, everything ever quite finished to satisfaction the way most unprepared, perplexed writers find themselves caught in the midst of a subject greater than they can handle given the rush of time and for me overwrought, overburdened, overworked, overextended, lost in a floating mindscape waiting for the restoration of one’s senses, one’s self, one’s energy after a serious bout of bad health two years ago but still trying to put those words together.

So, I note. I scribble. I say to myself, to whoever is listening, or reading, that there is a double life to be content with; the life others expect you to live – friends, family, spouses, neighbors – and the life you have little control living, doing what you want and must do to create if you will. Not always easy, always open to conflict and criticism, being true to yourself.

Do I detect an element of courage there? Well, possibly.

Note: Creativity and chaos how they go hand in hand.
Every day the serious writer tries to establish some kind of order out of chaos. Does that take courage? I’m not sure. I know that the challenge of making something out of nothing but words, words, words and shaping that chaos day after day ’til… Well, there! Everything finds some kind of place. Fini, the end. Not too bad.

Note: One’s personal history in finding his way to the freedom to write and this would take hours, years to deal with. It would take a novel, a memoir, something huge, the message being, without freedom you cannot create. And it takes a little courage to break whatever bonds that keep you from who you are and what you must do.

But back to the stupidity factor I mentioned in the beginning. Stupidity, was leaving a secure job teaching Honors English on a high school level and later literature in a junior college, a contract, a comfortable enough salary, a great pension plan, respect in the family, the neighborhood, among the friends, students who loved what your ability to encourage, to teach on your own terms and was all about? But no! You wanted to write.

So, you threw all that overboard after less than ten years, without the safe money stashed away in your pension fund, traveled throughout Europe for months and months living in Paris awhile, was a rite of passage for every real writer you had ever read. Throwing all that away, come home. No real job. Nothing in mind but the stupid and growing desire to live a writer’s life.

Now, few people would call that courage. That’s not what my parents called it, not what my in-laws called it, and my mostly blue-collared boyhood friends with a future, all on the way to a house and family in the suburbs 0 earning good bucks for what they did with their hands, banking on retirement and social security.

Did it take courage for me to finally get a job delivering mail door-to-door for the US Postal Service? and occasionally filling in as a substitute teacher? …while all the while wanting to write? The explanation of the joke was, whenever some someone asked my in-laws, or my wife, “What’s …he doing?” And their pert reply was, “Oh, he’s thinking.” or “Oh, he’s trying to find himself.” …as I slowly did, beginning to publish my first short stories for little-known, little read, underground literary magazines of little payment but copies, and then beginning to publish major features in all the major magazines and newspapers from Chicago that paid real money.

But was the writer in me satisfied? No. Of course not. Did it take courage to leave all this behind and… I do mean all, especially work …courage to pull up stakes, leave all that behind for the peace and quiet of the backwoods of Door County because everything, the city especially was getting too loud? I couldn’t concentrate on the serious stuff. Everybody wanted to be a writer but nobody was writing.

For ten years, I survived as what was known in the trade as a freelancer. In other words, a gun for hire, living on the road back-and-forth, Door County to Chicago, going down there to look up the stories, take the notes bring ‘em back, write the story and wait for the check. Back-and-forth writing to put food on the table and… writing serious short stories, and essays, and novels, attempting to get at both the art and the matter, which is pretty much where I find myself to this very day, though I have chucked the freelancing for the most part and devote most of my time to honing the art of writing.

Note: Well there’s so much more…
But you people have been sitting here long enough already and I don’t have the time or space and I have no doubt that I have already worried the subject to death and wore out my welcome and I didn’t even get to the serious hazards of …this trade, of any artistic persuasion. By that I mean alcoholism. Because, when you get right down to it, what’s it really all about, Alfie? Nothing.

I have a lost less-than-courageous friends through everything that I have described thus far, writer friends, painter friends, photographer friends, all going down in one way or another.

You want depression? Here’s Joseph Conrad’s wife describing her experience living with one of the world’s great writers:

“The novel is finished but the penalty has to be paid. Months of nervous strain have ended in a complete nervous breakdown. 30 Poor Conrad is very ill and Doctor Hackney says it will be a long time before he is fit for anything 0 requiring mental exertion. I know both you and dear Mrs. Melgram will feel every sympathy with him. There is the manuscript, complete but uncorrected and his fierce refusal to let even I touch it. It lays on a table at the foot of his bed and he lives mixed up in the scenes and he holds and converses with the characters. I have been up with him night and day since Sunday week and he who wish usually so depressed by illness, maintains he is not ill and accuses the doctor and I of trying to put him away into an asylum.”

Here’s another thing in Conrad’s life that often leads to depression, a life that often drives many serious writers a little crazy writing stuff you don’t want to write, but have to write, to survive, writing pot-boilers. I wasn’t aware that this was true even of… uh… Conrad’s life ’til I picked up this biography of him recently. Conrad led with exhausting vitality from his actual roles as husband and father.

There’s a famous anecdote Illustrating a quite literal and domestic instance of that quality of appearing aloof and apart which Virginia Wolf noted in his genius. He would allow Jesse and the boys to travel with him in a train compartment but only if they pretended not to be with him and was once most annoyed when the evidently sorely tired Jesse needed him to help with the luggage.

One biographer has compared Conrad’s literary career and his financially insecure but artistically flourishing period to that of the hero of Henry James’ short story “The Next Time.” Pressurized by his family commitments, the writer then tries even harder to write in the popular manner he feels will provide a money-spinning bestseller only to find that every “next time,” he produces a work more brilliant and unsaleable than the last.

Final note: Where is the joy?
Well, you’re gonna have to ask me back another time to talk about that. But, let me leave you with this, that uh… It’s all joy. That uh… every stupid and courageous minute of it is really pure joy. I have lived an impoverished life, richer than anyone could ever imagine, and to hear just one person say, “You know, what you wrote, changed my life.” end of quote… is the only social security payment that matters.

Thank you.

The “Courage to Create” is a four part speaking engagement featuring thoughts from a writer, an artist, a musician and a theologian. They respectively include: Norbert Blei, Chick Peterson, Katie Dahl and Phil Sweet.

Norb was the last of four individuals to address the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Door County in Ephraim, Wisconsin on Sunday, September 30, 2012. In essence, Blei is recounting the story of his life.

“The creative impulse is hardwired into everybody; it is not reserved for creative types like inventors and artists. Every moment the brain is connecting something known to something unknown, every moment holds a surprise.”

“Creativity,” Einstein said, “is the residue of time wasted.”

Production Credits:
DesignWise Studios, Sturgeon Bay, WI http://DesignWise.net
Stephen Kastner, Video-journalist http://DesignWiseFilms.com
Alastair Cameron, Music http://www.cameronmusic.co.uk
Sheila Saperstein, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Recording Engineer http://uufdc.org





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

8 12 2014
Norb-Blei.19958.350x0.0

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).





Chris Blei | Coop News

30 08 2014

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Norbert Blei

Norbert Blei

The Coop has flown

by Warren Bluhm

More than a year after Norbert Blei’s death — and just in the nick of time — the chicken coop where he did the coyote’s share of his work has been moved to its new home.

Contractor John Fitzgerald volunteered time and a crew to pack the structure onto a trailer and move it Tuesday to the Write On, Door County complex at 4177 Juddville Road in the town of Gibraltar. Blei’s property in Ellison Bay was sold in March, and the new owners asked that the coop be removed by Tuesday. “At the time we said, ‘Sept. 1? Sure, no problem,’” Jude Genereaux, Blei’s longtime partner, said Friday. “But then we had that long winter, and one thing led to another. … But it’s done now.” After a season of delays, the move itself went “surprisingly fast,” said Jerod Santek, executive director of Write On, Door County, a retreat for writers that opened last year on 40 acres of woods, meadows and orchards between Fish Creek and Egg Harbor.

“Because Norb wrote so much about the land and advocated for preservation of natural beauty — he did so much writing about nature and the value of place — I can’t imagine a more appropriate location for the coop,” Santek said. “I think it’s going to inspire new generations of writers to write about the land in which they live.” A native of Chicago, Blei moved to Door County in 1969 and became probably the most well-known writer about the Peninsula, chronicling its character and its characters in a trilogy of early 1980s essays, “Door Ways,” “Door Steps” and “Door to Door,” and numerous articles and other works. Often photographed amid the clutter of the chicken coop where he wrote, Blei pointedly criticized efforts to develop Door County and defended its natural splendor. In the early 1990s, he added “publisher” to his credits, founding Cross+Roads Press to publish chapbooks of new and established authors.

The Coop, the studio of the late award-winning writer Norbert Blei has found a new home behind the Write On building, 4177 Juddville Road in Juddville. It was moved to its new location Tuesday.(Photo: Tina M. Gohr/Door County Advocate)

The Coop, the studio of the late award-winning writer Norbert Blei has found a new home behind the Write On building, 4177 Juddville Road in Juddville. It was moved to its new location Tuesday.(Photo: Tina M. Gohr/Door County Advocate)

A teacher and reporter early in his career, Blei continued to teach classes and workshops, most notably at The Clearing Folk School near his home, for 40 years. He died April 23, 2013, at age 77. After The Clearing’s board of directors declined an offer to donate the coop to that facility, Anne Emerson spoke up for the Write On, Door County center she was working on, Genereaux said. “Norb believed in good literature and good writing and teaching, and he had spent time with Anne developing the idea,” she said. “He was adamant that the coop be used as a working space. He didn’t want it to become a museum piece.” That tied in perfectly with Emerson’s ideas. Once it is secured to its new foundation behind the center’s main building and some restoration work is completed, the coop will be available for writers and readers to sit, reflect and work, Santek said.

“We see it as a place for individuals to sit and be inspired,” Santek said. The donation of the coop includes Blei’s “beautiful writing table” and other furniture and mementos that he kept there.

“Norb would love that,” Genereaux said. “It’s a treasure to them; it’s not something that’s just going to sit there empty.”

Write On, Door County has grown exponentially since it opened a year ago, Santek said. Writers from the Twin Cities, Madison and even Boston have stayed at the Juddville center in residency, but the goal has always been for the center to serve as a hub with activities, classes and events across the county, he said. The nonprofit co-hosted a reading by mystery author Erin Hart Monday with Friends of the Door County Library and the Peninsula Bookman. A creative prose writers group has been meeting in Egg Harbor — its next gathering will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Berschinger Center — and a new mixed genre writing group meets for the first time from 1 to 3 p.m. Thursday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Ephraim.

For more information and a schedule of events and activities, visit writeondoorcounty.org or “like” the organization’s Facebook page. Santek said the organization currently has an active grant under which an anonymous donor will match any contributions. For more information, contact (920) 868-1457 or info@writeondoorcounty.org, or send donations to Write On, Door County, P.O. Box 457, Fish Creek, WI 54212-0457. — by Warren Bluhm, greenbaypressgazette

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Blei’s Coop Has New Home

by Pulse

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The Blei Coop moving crew included Michael Bergwin, Jeff Weborg, Kevin Strege, Daryl Bittorf, John Fitzgerald, Bill Guenzel, Steven Beno, Victor Soriano and Tom Allyn were the moving crew. photo by Anne Emerson. August 29, 2014

Door County writer Norbert Blei’s writing temple, a chicken coop in Ellison Bay, was moved on Aug. 26 to its new permanent home on the grounds of Write On, Door County in Juddville, with a fitting view of the steeple and cross of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in the background.

Michael Brecke was pastor at St. Paul’s before going to Kansas City last fall. Michael was a journalist before becoming a minister and has a great love of writing and the telling of stories. It was a conversation with him a few years ago that led to the dream of building a writing center. He is a founding board member of Write On, Door County and continues to feel very connected to it. He was a close friend of Norb Blei’s and feels Write On will provide the setting to continue the work Norb devoted his life to, writing and encouraging others to write.

Blei died on April 23, 2013.





Rick Kogan | Norbert Blei, 1935-2013 | Writer chronicled Chicago with the ‘soul of a poet’

23 04 2014
Norbert Blei

Norbert Blei | 1935 – 2013

Though much of his writing — gritty, urban and urbane, filled with humanity and lively characters — ranks with the best ever published about Chicago, Norbert Blei spent the last four decades in the relative peace and calm of Door County, Wisconsin, teaching, painting and, as if he could have ever stopped, writing.

He once defined his life by saying, “I am a storyteller. I am called to the page.”

Mr. Blei, 77, died Tuesday, April 23, at Scandia Village, a rehabilitation facility in Sister Bay, Wis. He had been battling cancer for more than two years.

“Norb was first and foremost a writer,” said Mr. Blei’s former student and longtime friend Albert DeGenova, a poet and publisher of Oak Park-based After Hours Press. “His books are alive with people, neighborhoods, the sights, sounds, smells of real living.”

Norbert George Blei was born in Chicago in 1935, the only child of Emily and George Blei, and grew up on the West Side before moving to Cicero in grade school.

After graduating from Illinois State University in 1956 with a degree in English, he taught that subject in high school before going to work for the City News Bureau, that bygone training ground for journalists.

He soon fashioned a successful nonfiction freelance career here but after a few years the local magazines that were a welcoming home to his stories about the city began to vanish. He was increasingly compelled to use material he once would have put into what he charmingly called “pieces of journalism” for his efforts in fiction.

Without bitterness or rancor but rather with a sense of adventure, he and his then-wife and two young children moved to Ellison Bay in 1968, where he lived his passion and joy as a writer, teacher and artist.

He became the “writer in residence” at The Clearing Folk School, a position he held for 40 years; edited a Door County arts newspaper and was the editor and publisher of CROSS+ROADS PRESS, which was devoted to emerging and accomplished poets, short story writers, essayists, novelists, artists and photographers.

Mr. Blei wrote 17 books, including those that many refer to as his Chicago trilogy: “Neighborhood,” “Chi Town” and “The Ghost of Sandburg’s Phizzog.”

Of “Neighborhood,” the writer and critic Laurie Levy wrote in the Tribune: “There is the soul of a poet as well as a journalist at large in these pages, recalling for the less articulate those lost moments we try so hard to remember.”

Mr. Blei called “Chi Town” his “love letter to a city that has meant so much to me.” In it, one can feel his passion for this place as he writes about familiar characters like Mike Royko and Studs Terkel, as well less famous folks.

“The Ghost of Sandburg’s Phizzog” is a sort of prose poem in honor of one of his greatest influences.

Mr. Blei also gave his adopted home in Wisconsin its due in such books as “Door Steps,” “Door to Door” and “Door Way.”

His stories appeared in The New Yorker, Chicago Magazine, Utne Reader, Tri-Quarterly, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. He was a popular speaker and a frequent guest on Wisconsin Public Radio.

He was the recipient of many awards, including the Gordon MacQuarrie Award from the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters; Pushcart Press Award in fiction; and the Bradley Major Achievement Award from the Council of Wisconsin Writers.

He also inspired a couple generations of writers, both would-be and published.

“Since my first class in 1996, he has become a true mentor in my writing life,” DeGenova told the Tribune early this year. “His passion for the literary subjects he chooses to teach, his dedication to the writing life, to the purity of the word, to the flow of feeling to thought to words on the page … A powerful fire Norb (was) …”

Mr. Blei is survived by his longtime partner, Jude Genereaux; his former wife, Barbara Blei; a son, Christopher; a daughter, Bridget Buff; and three grandchildren.

A memorial service is being planned.

Rick Kogan, April 30, 2013| Chicago Tribune








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