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