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>>
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
Myles 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.