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





Jude Genereaux | Who Knows Where The Time Goes?

22 04 2014

Time. Time seems to have always been an issue for Norb and I. Because we met in the later years of life, because it moves too fast, because there never seemed to be enough it to get done all the writing, all the travels, daily tasks, errands and still have hours for friends & family and each other. All that stopped last year. One year already … April 23rd. 2013 … the man left this earth. In April. The month of re-birth. Renewal.

And time stopped. The finality of death, especially someone’s who was so vibrant, alive and OUT there! as Norbert Blei, stopped everything for this woman. The sobering gong of GONE continues to ring, even as we-who-loved-him anxiously seek out one more thing we can do for him, to keep him alive in our days and efforts, and to honor his memory and his life’s work.

Planning his Memorial kept us going through June. Then came efforts to move the Coop to the ‘Write ON! Center’ in Juddville; friends created a Scholarship at Gibraltar High in his name, others changed an Award designation at the Council of Wisconsin Writers to commemorate Norb’s work. Fellow classmates from The Clearing began work mid-winter on a compilation of essays he’d sent out the call for, in honor of The Clearing – and Norb as teacher. Essays, articles, books and poems have been written and dedicated to him.

Just this past month, the saddest task came, emptying our beloved home on Europe Lake Road of 46 years of life & memory that lived within those walls.

norb

How do we find yet one more event, word, task we can do for him? Have we accomplished every effort envisioned? For a man as dedicated to the art of writing and teaching as Norb? Not hardly. His influence and love continue, his voice rings in our ears urging us to “Get it down”, capture the moment, and “Send it out there!” I hear his voice assuring me that “Someone out there desperately needs to hear what you have to say”. For me, the writer I most needed to hear, was Norbert Blei.

Now comes April again, with all its promise of rebirth and blooming … how can anyone leave this earth so abundant, in April? Our tulips, crocuses, daffodils & narcissus push their way to the sun in front of the old house – with neither of us there to oogle there arrival.

What remains is the spirit he continues to urge forth in new shoots of writing, words that spring to the page, his encouragement echoes. It’s what he told us to do. Write it down.

 

Learning Curve

“There ain’t no cure for Love”
~ Leonard Cohen

How do we mourn our shadow?
my echo, the skin on my shoulder where
…….he was always present,
…….together or apart.
…….He was “there”.
Still is. ~ Jude Genereaux





Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 12/20/13 | Those who left us in 2013 left wisdom behind

31 12 2013
Door County author Norbert Blei filled the living room of his home in Ellison Bay with books.

Door County author Norbert Blei filled the living room of his home in Ellison Bay with books.

Blei left his job teaching English at Lyons Township High School near Chicago in 1968 for what he thought would be the perfect place: Door County. And it was. He took up residence in a classic writer’s lair — a farmhouse in the woods, where he would produce 18 books — short stories, novels, essays — in a career spanning 40 years. Much of the time he worked from a converted chicken coop in the woods, piled high with papers and about 3,000 books. — Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 12/20/13

“I like artists who are almost obsessed with their work — painters who paint, writers who write, potters who make pots. You write to find out about yourself. If you’re in areas where you’re not finding out about yourself, it’s futile. You’re wasting your time.”

— Norbert Blei, on the writing life





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





Warren Nelson | To tell the story of a man’s life

27 11 2013

Warren Nelson | To tell the story of a man’s life

To tell the story of a man’s life

To tell the story of a man’s life in a few paragraphs is to skim the wind over the ocean. I was privileged to meet Norbert Blei and become a friend. Obituary Norbert Blei 1935-2013 Green Bay Gazette April 23 Author, publisher and teacher.

Norbert Blei died early Tuesday morning at Scandia Village in Sister Bay, where he had been recuperating from recent surgery. He was 77.A native of Chicago, Blei moved to Door County in 1969 and became a passionate defender of its natural beauty and rural character, working from a converted chicken coop studio in Ellison Bay. He was the author of 17 books, including “Door Way: The People in the Landscape,” “Door Steps,” “Door to Door” and “Meditations on a Small Lake.” He established Cross+Roads Press in 1994 to support the work of local writers and poet. His “Chronicles of a Rural Journalist in America” recounts the furor he created with a satirical piece in the Door Reminder called “Shut the Damn Door,” advocating for sealing off Northern Door’s natural splendor from tourists. For three decades he taught writing workshops at The Clearing in Ellison Bay and was scheduled to return to the front of the class this summer.

In Memory Of Norbert Blei…My late great coyote brother

Norbert BleiI first heard of Norbert in a newspaper article, must have been in the early to mid 80s. Norb’s photo was with the article. He was standing by a newly installed mail receptacle that was there for receiving free shopper papers. He stated that no one asked permission to install any of these beside every mailbox.

They were plastic, ugly, another sore sight in beautiful Door County. I took to him immediately. He looked like me with his furry mustache. He had good solid eyebrows, strong shoulders, a granite bold face and in this photo he was pissed off.

I was impressed that the article was sent statewide. I was more impressed that the eyes of this man paid attention to detail, to any visual despoiling of an especially beautiful peninsula in neighborhood Wisconsin. I had never been to Door County but I clipped the article and vowed to one day meet the man.

I can’t remember the date of our first meeting. Seems like I had known him all my life. I believe our introduction to each other might have been during a weekend that I was playing a concert with Big Top Chautauqua at the Door Community Auditorium in the late 80s. After the show he took me to one of the funkiest greatest bars I have ever been in and I have been in many a bar in my hopping. The A.C.Tap. The place was all soul. Old. The floor was polished by 50 years of beer. Jukebox. Antique stools. Names carved in the bar-top. My kind of bar. One that welcomes conversation and joviality. We stayed till closing time. He invited me to his place the next day telling me about his hole called The Coop.

I went. It was an old chicken coop books galore, wall to wall, floor to ceiling. Paintings. Snippets of poetry. Photographs. An old long-used typewriter. Wisdom in the walls.

He gave me one of his books. I gave him a CD. We both had carved careers out of celebrating a sense of place. We were basically the same guy and would remain brothers throughout our shared time. His recognition of the history of Door County as it yet stood in old people and old buildings was honor to the past and a hope that something would remain of what was because what was authentic. “If God wanted us to have fiberglass boats, He would have given us fiberglass trees.” His written portraits of elders of Door County are priceless. The adage “They don’t make’m like they used to” applies to buildings and people and Norb and I often talked about that, bemoaning the news that an old farmhouse was being torn down, that the old country store was being demolished, that a new Condo development was rising on the heights over Lake Michigan (for me Lake Superior).

He had known about Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua, a Bayfield Peninsula tent show I founded. Years later, I booked him for a reading at the tent along with Jean Feraca. It was broadcast on Tent Show Radio. He had the perfect radio voice that licked his words. You could definitely hear Chicago, his birthplace, in it.

I never saw him enough but when we were together the stories rolled. As much as I wanted to hear all of what he was up to and writing he kept on with new writers he had discovered and wanted to put into print by his Cross+Roads Press. That was his true gift to the forest of literature. He was a great oak standing in the middle of younger aspiring writers. Generous. Encouraging. Critical– knowing truth from bullshit. Those of us who knew Norb remember well his feather-ruffling in the politics of Door County. More like a coyote’s growl. Again, his eye looking beyond himself.

We, of course, have his books to keep us company. And keep his mind and spirit alive by reading his writing. Incredible life of work. Incredible ship of wisdom that went down. I’m remembering a visit I made to Sigurd Olson’s writing shack out behind his house in Ely, Minnesota. It was kept as it was at the last hour Sigurd walked out the door to go snowshoeing and never returned. Typewriter in place. Chair staring at it. Books, snowshoes, skis, a wool hat on a hook. A museum. I wish The Coop could be left at it was on Norb’s last day. It should be on the Register of Historic Places.

There has been some Door County talk for a couple of years about a new show featuring Norb’s work with me putting music under and over his prose and crafting songs out of his writings and story. I had in mind that Norbert would play himself and I would sit and sing beside the source. Photos old and new of the Door County environs and people would be projected behind the staged program. I have to get this show on the boards. I’m casting myself in the role of Norbert Blei. The show would run 90 minutes or so and hopefully play in the summers forever. I love the thought of new people being introduced to Norbert Blei’s writings far into the Door County and Wisconsin future.

Here’s a poem I wrote in early 2012.

NORBERT BLEI

Codger, a dodger, confidence trickster–
Keeper of Wisconsin.
Writer, let’s know, of great Wisconsin wrongs.

I would lay light that his work
Unpaving a road through Door County
Will whisk dust up for young writers to come to
Find voice and camp there in their own
With a consciousness of no conciliations,
Follow their bare bones loosening the bullshit
To fit this new world that frighteningly forgets the old.

Prose man, poet blender.
Sender off to the world
His great working gifts.

A presence lifted from Illinois
Took the flyway of Lake Michigan
And built a nest as eagles do north
Where all can be seen from.

Perched in his coop to
Sway swoop down on any day.
Craft steeped like how-ever- old-he- is whiskey.
You can smell it on his breathway-
The truth.

Honor to the deep in shallow politics.
He is editing our time,
The anger all behind a voice of sweetness.

Plow the road.
Like that crazy crooked county road
That hauls all to the landing across from
Washington Island.
Jesus, who platted that?
Only one who can laugh along the way.

Norbert Blei ferries himself across for
All of us.

Warren Nelson
April 25, 2013





Norbert Blei | Remembering Al

24 11 2013

Al Johnson and Waitresses 1960s

Al Johnson and Waitresses 1960s

Remembering Al

Though the goats continue to appear every summer season on the grass roof of Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant and Butik in Sister Bay, though Al’s wife, Ingert (in her 80’s), may still be seen early in the morning sweeping, sometimes washing the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, though the two sons, Lars and Rolfe, are hard at work in the kitchen cooking, filling orders, and the daughter, Annika, is in the dining room serving customers and keeping a steady eye trained on the tables, on the people waiting to be seated, though it may take over an hour to be seated at the height of summer, though both the log exterior of the building and interior design and furnishings of the restaurant exude a warm, old world welcome impossible to be found with such authenticity anywhere else in the county, though the waitresses are attentive, efficient, friendly, beautifully dressed/costumed in their colorful, European dirndls, though the layers of delicious thin Swedish pancakes dabbed with butter, smothered in maple syrup, lingonberries, and topped, perhaps, with Swedish meatballs, with whipped cream or ice cream and strawberries…though all this (and more) remains the unique Door County dining experience simply described as: “Eating at Al’s,” the single most important factor of this setting is no longer in place: Al himself, who died in June, 2010.

Al Johnson

Al Johnson

There are customers still unaware of his passing. New customers with no memory of Al Johnson on the floor, in total command, no knowledge of the strength and tone of his distinctive voice (both happy and harried) in the kitchen, behind the counter, on the floor, pulling out chairs to a perfectly shiny, table-setting (2-top, 4-top, 10-top), pouring coffee with one hand, holding his famous blue rag in the other, talking a mile a minute to customers while his eyes scour the entire dining room to see what else might need his attention…voicing his concerns to waitresses, bus people, anyone in range. This was classic Al Johnson, ALIVE, in place, on fire! Often ending a crackling customer conversation with a laugh, a hand shake, a pat-on-the-back, and his classic loud and laughing goodbye: “You got that right!”

The way Al Johnson himself had it so right (conviviality, compassion, customer service) that it is difficult for those who remember him to believe, in the height of the summer season, that the spirit of Al is not on the floor, in full command, hands flying, eyes flitting about the room, voice bouncing off tables, walls, ceiling.

Even the goats on the roof, strike a pose, solemnly raise their heads, and affirm their master’s voice: Yes, you got that right!








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