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.
With 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
NB: 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.
LK: 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.
NB: 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: firstname.lastname@example.org).