“The presence of his absence is everywhere”.
~Edna St Vincent Millay
Three years can feel like a lifetime and still be as fresh as yesterday in our emotions. April 23rd, 2013 Norbert Blei left this earth and all of us and all we loved and all he loved. Three years this month since our last morning together, since last waking to see his face next to mine … leaving all of us an emptier world without his rumbling voice and incomparable laughter.
Many people who loved Norbert Blei have come together in ways that honor him and carry on his legacy of stewardship for the life of writers.
After the shock of his loss settled into our being with a private service for him, a fittingly grand Memorial was planned for June, 2013. Set in the theatre of Peninsula Players near Fish Creek, Norb’s friends and relatives from all over the midwest and beyond came to say goodbye and to hear his words set free in the open air.
Norb’s special friend, pastor Michael Brecke welcomed those attending, and introduced the folk singers, musicians and writers who sang and read for him: Julian Hagen, Pete Thelen, Jay Whitney; Jeanne Kuhns gifted us with an original song composed for Norb. Writers Marty Robinson, Marianne Ritzer, Robert Zoschke, Alice D’Alessio and Al DeGenova read passages from Norb’s work; Annika Johnson brought goats and family memories of her father and Norb’s friendship, to everyone’s delight. Tim Stone shared his deep feelings for Norb gained through many years of working and advocating for him at The Clearing, a place Norb loved dearly.
At the conclusion of this amazing afternoon, Norbert’s beloved son and daughter, Christopher and Bridget invited all to gather at the Edgewood Orchard Gallery for gnoshing and a final toast to their Father. It was as grand a time as anyone could wish for, honoring this unique person in our lives.
But it didn’t stop there.
Wanting to preserve Norbert’s infamous chicken coop, his writing “studio” for posterity, Bridget and Chris donated the building to the Write On Door County! center for writers at Juddville. After an anxiety ridden year of fund raising, moving plans and a successful ride down Highway 42 – the infamous Blei Coop now stands proudly in the sun where the loving hands and inspired efforts of Anne Emerson, Jerod Santek and many others stand watch over his precious legacy.
There exists for Norb a core of students who attended his summer workshops at The Clearing year after year, some continuously over 25 years. I lovingly refer to them as the Blei-Tribe. Within days after his death, many of us began sharing essays written which Norb had requested from a number of us; these were to focus on the meaning writing had in our lives and the impact of The Clearing. Norb’s intent was to gather these into a chapbook dedicated to The Clearing.
We soon discovered that central in all of them was also the impact of having had Norb as teacher. As we read each other’s work, the mission became clear to go forward with the chapbook he had intended. “The Professor’s Quarters” came into being early in 2014. This same Blei-Tribe then raised the funds to get it to publication, proudly donating cases of the book to The Clearing, the proceeds to go to their “Norbert Blei Scholarship Fund”. It can be found there at the book store.
In the winter of 2013, the Board of the Council for Wisconsin Writers renamed its Nonfiction Book Award the Norbert Blei/August Derleth Nonfiction Book Award, to recognize Norb’s significant contribution to the Wisconsin literary archive. This wonderful honor was the start of others that continue to bring Norb’s work to our attention.
Norb’s blues-belting friend Pete Thelan originated an idea for a local scholarship to be awarded to promising young writers from the Gibraltar high school. Funded by ten of Norb’s family members and friends, this spring 2016 will mark the third year that $1,000 scholarship will be given in Norb’s honor to a graduating senior.
The intensive efforts of Norbert’s former publisher, friend Dave Pichaske, archiving Norb’s extensive body of work and making contact with UW Madison Library officials, resulted in the UW accepting Norb’s work into the hallowed halls in summer of 2014. Eventually his historical work, and much which was never published will be available to all on-line, thanks to Pichaske’s exhaustive efforts.
A chilly but festive afternoon in May 2015 brought more reading and memories of Norbert as the Write On! Board of Directors hosted an Open House to dedicate the Coop to its new life of service. John Nelson presided over nearly a full day of music and voices honoring Norbert: Susan O’Leary, Pete Thelan, Jay Whitney, Al DeGenova, Charlie Rossiter, Jeanne Kuhns Mark Raddatz, Lars and Rolf Johnson, Charles Peterson, Kaaren Weiss, Tim Stone and the poets of Door County all united in music, in poetry and in love, for Norbert Blei.
It continues: Susan O’Leary and Al DeGenova, former teaching partners of Norb’s, have each stepped up to carry on the tradition, offering their own flights of word wizardry at workshops in the holy grounds of The Clearing.
In 2015, John and Karen Yancey created the first annual “Norbert Blei Literary Award” to be announced during the Washington Island Literary Fest on Washington Island. One of Norb’s former students herself, Karen contributed her time and efforts in establishing the event, and the Yanceys donated the funds to award winners Catherine Jagoe (Poetry) and Sue Wentz (Short Story) each a $250 check for their winning work.
We are not yet finished.
These events form a continuing legacy honoring Norbert, even as new ones spring into being. In October 2016, the Sister Bay Unitarian Universalist Fellowship will host a showing of Norb’s prolific, but lesser known work in water color painting. There will be a reading of his work at the opening, with his paintings available for viewing throughout the month of October. Many will be surprised to learn that he was a talented artist as well as writer. As Norbert would say: the beat goes on …
For all of this, and for all of you who’ve made these significant events happen: I can hardly express how deeply grateful I am as I hear in my heart, Norbert’s proud chuckle.
Shantih ~ Jude
“The Bible says we are dust and shall return to dust.
But we are much more than dust.
We are energy which is interchangeable with light.
We are fire and water and earth.
We are air and atoms and quarks.
We are dreams and hopes and fears
held together by wisdom
and driven apart by folly.
So much more than dust.
What the Bible should say is:
… You were a miracle and we return you to
the mystery from which you came”.
~ Rev. Phil Sweet