From the Door County Advocate, April 27, 2013. Photo by Mike Brisson.
For years he howled; oh, how he howled.
He howled about the beauty of his adopted land and the special people who lived here. He painted images with words to capture that beauty and the character of Door County’s people. Most memorably, it seemed, he howled in anger and indignation when the beauty was endangered, and he howled with loss when those characters passed on.
Tuesday, Norbert Blei, who adopted the persona Coyote in one of the incarnations of his newspaper column, came to the end of his remarkable life as a result of complications from recent surgery. He was 77.
His writing style was an amalgam of the two places he called home, the rough and tumble streets of blue collar Chicago and the unspoiled natural beauty of Door County. After graduating from Illinois State University in 1956, he taught high school English and worked as a reporter at City News Bureau in the Windy City.
Then in 1969 he and his wife brought their two children to Ellison Bay, where Blei would write in a converted chicken coop for the next four decades — most notably collections of essays and character profiles like “Door Way” and “Chi-Town” and “Meditations on a Small Lake.” His work was published in numerous literary magazines and national newspapers — and also local publications like the Door Reminder, Door Voice and Door County Advocate — often sounding a warning about protecting the fragile Door County environment against development.
“He had a love/hate relationship with Door County since he first came here,” said Lars Johnson, whose father had opened Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant and Butik a decade before Blei moved north. “What attracted him to this place was the same as my dad, a place to escape city life, the hustle and bustle.”
He wrote about Isle View Road in a piece called “The Death of a Country Road”: “It’s a road that runs mostly straight, with a few gentle dips — that I’m sure our highway engineers will love to fill in and level. It’s a road that in summer, with trees in full leaf, you sort of entered a long cathedral of branches, of dancing light. You were not only on the road, but in it. It both carried you aloft and carried you quietly from side to side like the movement of the river.”
One of his most notorious columns in the Door Reminder was called “Shut the Damn Door,” a playful and biting satire that purported to be a master plan for the county. It called for converting the Bayview Bridge into an outdoor walking mall park, tearing up the paved roads and converting them to dirt and gravel, and encouraging vandalism of commercial road signs and plastic newspaper tubes.
The Reminder’s pages exploded with letters that both applauded Blei’s columns and condemned them, especially some of his more bawdy efforts. One of his sharper critics was Tom Felhofer, a longtime resident of the town of Union on the other end of the county.
“Blei’s career was proof that if you churn out enough words, and your moustache is long enough, you might be able to eke out a living by selling fairy tales to fellow Chicagoans who believe they are reading about Door County,” Felhofer said.
But Johnson said Blei’s status as a transplant helped define how special a place Door County is.
“As someone who came here from elsewhere, I think sometimes he understood Door County better than the locals,” Johnson said. “Because he was an outsider, he was wary of outsiders — especially developers. He was very fearful of where Door County was going.”
His lifetime of work in the coop netted him a Gordon MacQuarrie Award from the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters in 1997 for his “deep environmental ethic and journalistic integrity.” But his work as a teacher may be his most lasting influence. For four decades his writing workshops at The Clearing Folk School have been legendary.
“Writing has become one of the major areas of study at The Clearing, but it started with Norb,” executive director Michael Schneider said Friday. Blei taught his first Clearing workshop in 1973 and came back most years since then.
He was slated to be back this summer teaching one of the eight or nine writing workshops offered at the Ellison Bay school founded in 1935 by landscape architect Jens Jensen on 128 acres of forests and meadows. Several other Clearing teachers are Blei’s among past students.
The focus of the weeklong workshops was the writing life — and the focus of Blei the teacher was helping his students to understand the dedication and focus needed to be a true writer.
“He spent a lot of the week in one-on-one consultation before, during and after class,” Schneider said. “Nobody worked harder for his or her students.”
Several teachers at The Clearing have come back to Blei’s classes five, 10, 15 and even 25 years later, “almost like a reunion,” he said.
“He was dedicated to The Clearing, he was dedicated to his craft, he was dedicated to Door County,” Schneider said. “First and foremost, he was dedicated to his students.”
In 1994 Blei established the Cross+Roads Press to highlight and champion the work of new and local artists. He made the transition to the Internet, where his Poetry Dispatch and N.B. Coop News, among other sites, made his work available to an even broader audience.
In recent years he fought and beat cancer — he was cancer-free for the last three years of his life — and he continued to frequent Al Johnson’s and update his blogs. He sent an occasional email to his list with a photo he had snapped of a pristine Door County image, titled simply, “Good morning, Old Picker Shacks” or “Good afternoon, Shadows, Stone Fences, White Birch.”
He lost a great deal of weight in recent months and had stomach surgery in March, then contracted pneumonia, which took a lot of his remaining energy. At 8:18 a.m. Tuesday, he passed away at Scandia Village in Sister Bay.
“Blei was lucky in that he was able to spend most of his life doing exactly what he wanted,” Felhofer said. “And at the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s all about?”