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





Norbert Blei | Christmas Eve in Door

20 12 2013

Norbert Blei

All roads lead,

eventually, to Ellison Bay from here, including Mink River Road which takes me past the house of old Oscar Dysterud, moving slowly through the living room this night, past Gust Klenke’s garage once again, the blue-white neon clock glowing in the window forever, it seems, 8:45 . . . more or less.

The pavement almost dry from the wind by now. But no clearing. No moon. No stars. Just an ever deepening night. The only snow to be seen, patches of it from weeks ago, still clinging to the roadside ditch past the Hartman place and Johnny Fitzgerald, Approaching Timberline, a string of colored Christmas lights brightens the front porch of Loco’s (Robert Cuellar) place. A light, always on, at Uncle Tom’s old Newport School. Turning left . . . darkness … turning right… home.

I make coffee, cut the apple pie, slice some cheddar cheese, light the Christmas tree, put on three albums of classical guitar, sip wine, and open a present I have given to myself: The Letters of D. H. Lawrence. “The great thing is to love—therein lies the excitement, the fundamental vibration of the life force.”

I read in and around a stack of other books, listen to a Dylan Thomas recording of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” answer the phone (the Rausches, extending their greetings from Western Springs, Illinois), then turn on the TV to catch John Paul the II’s mass from Rome (for old time’s sake), to see St. Peter’s Basilica once again, to hear the Latin, the music, to witness the splendor of a ritual I celebrated as a child, a ritual which intrigues me still in different ways.

I think of my family in other places. I think of friends spread out in so many directions. I think of my own journey in place this Christmas Eve in Door.

I think not so much of Christmas as spirit, alive in everyone, in all seasons, in all places, and how it flickers in the darkest recesses imaginable. I think of my work: to find the people, the place, the time, the words and forms to say these things for all, yet make them mine.

Call it Christmas. Call it spirit. Call it love. Call it light.
In the midnight hours I read a Hopi incantation, and turn to sleep:

The day has risen.
Go I to behold the dawn,
Go behold the dawn!
The white rising!
The yellow rising!
It has become light.
And on Christmas morning, on the road, a clarity of sky, a gift of sun.

from the chapter: Christmas Eve in Door – Winter Book

Norbert Blei

Norbert Blei

Norbert Blei - Winter BookWinter Book is a mature performance with a satisfying sense of completion. The season is winter; the dominant theme is the acceptance of small wonders, including decay and obscurity. Like Blei himself, Winter Book is alternately nostalgic, angry, and amusing. It is in some respects a very public book, in others a very personal collection. The journalistic profiles are Blei’s own experiences and friends, including public figures like Chan Harris and Al Johnson, and Door County natives, poets, musicians, and artists. Blei’s fictions explore the Door landscape on a deeper level. Blei is an astute observer whose attitudes are shared by readers inside and outside the County. Once again the personal becomes the public, and Winter Book, like Door Way, records communal experience.
Norbert Blei’s Winter Book is available by clicking here… or just click the book cover on the left.

Norbert Blei





Norbert Blei | On Poetry

2 11 2013

Emily Dickinson Poetry Series, April 13th 2011. The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Door County





Norbert Blei | The Courage to Create

2 11 2013

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





Norbert Blei Retrospective

2 11 2013

This is a compilation of three readings by Norb Blei, who passed away in 2013. He was an important writer of and in Door County, Wisconsin. Included are excerpts from his performances at Miller Art Gallery on 03-13-11 as part of a Frances May celebration, and two Christmas shows at Door Community Auditorium on 12-23-09 and 12-23-10.





Warren Bluhm | Coyote at rest | Norbert Blei remembered as teacher, writer, advocate

2 11 2013
Norbert Blei's poetic and sometimes brutal prose defined Door County for more than 40 years. Blei, seen here in June 2010, died Tuesday at age 77. / Mike Brisson/For the Door County Advocate

Norbert Blei’s poetic and sometimes brutal prose defined Door County for more than 40 years. Blei, seen here in June 2010, died Tuesday at age 77. | Photo by Mike Brisson for the Door County Advocate

Coyote at rest | Norbert Blei remembered as teacher, writer, advocate

by Warren Bluhm Apr. 27, 2013

For years he howled; oh, how he howled.

He howled about the beauty of his adopted land and the special people who lived here. He painted images with words to capture that beauty and the character of Door County’s people. Most memorably, it seemed, he howled in anger and indignation when the beauty was endangered, and he howled with loss when those characters passed on.

Tuesday, Norbert Blei, who adopted the persona Coyote in one of the incarnations of his newspaper column, came to the end of his remarkable life as a result of complications from recent surgery. He was 77.

His writing style was an amalgam of the two places he called home, the rough and tumble streets of blue collar Chicago and the unspoiled natural beauty of Door County. After graduating from Illinois State University in 1956, he taught high school English and worked as a reporter at City News Bureau in the Windy City.

Then in 1969 he and his wife brought their two children to Ellison Bay, where Blei would write in a converted chicken coop for the next four decades — most notably collections of essays and character profiles like “Door Way” and “Chi-Town” and “Meditations on a Small Lake.” His work was published in numerous literary magazines and national newspapers — and also local publications like the Door Reminder, Door Voice and Door County Advocate — often sounding a warning about protecting the fragile Door County environment against development.

“He had a love/hate relationship with Door County since he first came here,” said Lars Johnson, whose father had opened Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant and Butik a decade before Blei moved north. “What attracted him to this place was the same as my dad, a place to escape city life, the hustle and bustle.”

He wrote about Isle View Road in a piece called “The Death of a Country Road”: “It’s a road that runs mostly straight, with a few gentle dips — that I’m sure our highway engineers will love to fill in and level. It’s a road that in summer, with trees in full leaf, you sort of entered a long cathedral of branches, of dancing light. You were not only on the road, but in it. It both carried you aloft and carried you quietly from side to side like the movement of the river.”

One of his most notorious columns in the Door Reminder was called “Shut the Damn Door,” a playful and biting satire that purported to be a master plan for the county. It called for converting the Bayview Bridge into an outdoor walking mall park, tearing up the paved roads and converting them to dirt and gravel, and encouraging vandalism of commercial road signs and plastic newspaper tubes.

The Reminder’s pages exploded with letters that both applauded Blei’s columns and condemned them, especially some of his more bawdy efforts. One of his sharper critics was Tom Felhofer, a longtime resident of the town of Union on the other end of the county.

“Blei’s career was proof that if you churn out enough words, and your moustache is long enough, you might be able to eke out a living by selling fairy tales to fellow Chicagoans who believe they are reading about Door County,” Felhofer said.

But Johnson said Blei’s status as a transplant helped define how special a place Door County is.

“As someone who came here from elsewhere, I think sometimes he understood Door County better than the locals,” Johnson said. “Because he was an outsider, he was wary of outsiders — especially developers. He was very fearful of where Door County was going.”

His lifetime of work in the coop netted him a Gordon MacQuarrie Award from the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters in 1997 for his “deep environmental ethic and journalistic integrity.” But his work as a teacher may be his most lasting influence. For four decades his writing workshops at The Clearing Folk School have been legendary.

“Writing has become one of the major areas of study at The Clearing, but it started with Norb,” executive director Michael Schneider said Friday. Blei taught his first Clearing workshop in 1973 and came back most years since then.

He was slated to be back this summer teaching one of the eight or nine writing workshops offered at the Ellison Bay school founded in 1935 by landscape architect Jens Jensen on 128 acres of forests and meadows. Several other Clearing teachers are Blei’s among past students.

The focus of the weeklong workshops was the writing life — and the focus of Blei the teacher was helping his students to understand the dedication and focus needed to be a true writer.

“He spent a lot of the week in one-on-one consultation before, during and after class,” Schneider said. “Nobody worked harder for his or her students.”

Several teachers at The Clearing have come back to Blei’s classes five, 10, 15 and even 25 years later, “almost like a reunion,” he said.

“He was dedicated to The Clearing, he was dedicated to his craft, he was dedicated to Door Couty,” Schneider said. “First and foremost, he was dedicated to his students.”

In 1994 Blei established the Cross+Roads Press to highlight and champion the work of new and local artists. He made the transition to the Internet, where his Poetry Dispatch and N.B. Coop News, among other sites, made his work available to an even broader audience.

In recent years he fought and beat cancer — he was cancer-free for the last three years of his life — and he continued to frequent Al Johnson’s and update his blogs. He sent an occasional email to his list with a photo he had snapped of a pristine Door County image, titled simply, “Good morning, Old Picker Shacks” or “Good afternoon, Shadows, Stone Fences, White Birch.”

He lost a great deal of weight in recent months and had stomach surgery in March, then contracted pneumonia which took a great deal of his remaining energy. At 8:18 a.m. Tuesday, he passed away at Scandia Village in Sister Bay.

“Blei was lucky in that he was able to spend most of his life doing exactly what he wanted,” Felhofer said. “And at the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s all about?”








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