They came to remember; they came to praise; they came to celebrate a man; they came to celebrate this place, and they came to remember the man who described what a special place it was as it was becoming what it is — often with alarm, always with love.
Saturday was a beautiful Door County day, the gardens at Peninsula Players Theatre were growing lush in the early summer sun, and the highways were comfortably filled with travelers on their way to a destination and friends coming here to pay tribute to Norbert Blei, who died April 23 at age 77.
As the Rev. Michael Brecke put it, Blei was a newspaperman, teacher, artist, poet, and critic, “calling us to task when we stopped loving the land and the water in this place,” and a writer.
“He wrote about the characters in this place and then became one,” said Brecke, who also noted Blei’s gravestone reads, “Find me in my books.”
And for an hour or so, they did: Each of the speakers who shared personal experiences about how he had moved their lives also read a bit from his books.
When Tim Stone first came to Door County, he was told by the locals that “if we ever had a prayer of being one of them, we had to read his books.”
And in Blei’s books they found wisdom — Robert Zoschke read “It’s good to pause now and then and see where the hell you were at” and advice not just for writers but all of us — “the important thing is to get the work done.”
They spoke of the man who would write in his converted chicken coop and teach about the writer’s passion at the Clearing and sit at the counter at Al Johnson’s with a cup of coffee, listening and talking.
“I know that there is a coffee table in heaven and I know that they may have a seat for Norb, but I’m sure he’ll elbow his way in and take over in a short time,” said Annika Johnson, who brought along one of the family’s goats named Beelzebub.
“I love his words, I love his voice, I love his mustache,” Julian Hagen said simply before launching into his song “Northern Light,” and Jeanne Kuhns sang “A Song for Norb,” and Pete Thelen and Jay Whitney led a rousing rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” adopted to Door County.
Stone noted that when the Clearing was struggling for survival in 1985, Blei wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune, “Door County’s Clearing: A Secret School in the Woods for Adults,” the reservations began to come in and Jens Jensen’s amazing vision was secured for another generation. There was much talk about the iconic teacher who worked hard to prepare his classes and stayed late at the Clearing to give each aspiring writer personal attention.
But then Bridget Buff came up, and her voice struggled against the tears as she talked about the man who would read to her as she sat in his lap, and make enormous breakfasts and walk her to the bus stop, and mail letters to her even when they lived in the same house, and how “he loved winter and I did not.”
And that was when we remembered the legendary icon was also a man who loved his daughter and his son Christo. The poet who captured the soul and the people of Door County was also a daddy; in fact Norb Blei first came here in 1969 to give them a special place to grow up.
“His home, his heart and his spirit are here forever, and he wouldn’t have it any other way,” Bridget said.
Nor would we.