Norbert Blei began his career as a writer in the same way as did many young writers of the 1950s: at the bottom of the journalistic totem pole. Blei’s first professional job was reading and running teletype messages at Chicago’s City News Bureau. He later moved on to drafting obituaries and even became the gofer for the night shift. It was a textbook start to an urban reporter’s career.At the time, there was no way Blei could know that this was the beginning of a writer’s career that would connect the stories of two communities—one urban, one rural—and change his writerly perspective from that of the cynical insider to an empathetic outsider.
Born and raised on Chicago’s west side, in the Czech neighborhood of Cicero, Blei joined the City News Bureau in 1957. He never did become a full-time beat reporter, leaving after only six months. “I pulled back for fear I’d never be able to write what I truly wanted to write,” he would later explain in Chi Town (Ellis Press, 1990), a collection of essays about the people of the city he called home for many years.
Writing what he truly wanted to write was the theme of Blei’s life. And in his pursuit of writing—and of becoming what he believed a writer should be, from his mind to his habits to his clothes—he would (often stubbornly) sacrifice income, bylines, even relationships to pursue his vision of the writer in its truest form.
After leaving the Chicago City News Bureau, Blei traveled and taught in area high schools to pay the bills, while working intermittently on a novel and freelance features. By the mid-1960s his byline consistently appeared in Chicago newspapers and magazines, mostly under profiles of the Czechs of Cicero. Even in the 1980s, long after he left the city for the rural wilds of Wisconsin, Blei was still an expert at telling stories about the working men and women of his old neighborhood, stories like the one about Doc Cermak that found its way into his nonfiction collection Neighborhood (Ellis Press, 1987):
It was my mother who first found Doc Cermak. She opened the door for my grandparents, her sisters and brothers, the children, the whole family called Papp. To this day, Doc Cermak must be visited by some member of the Papp family at least once a week. … He got me through adolescence, over the hump of young manhood, signed papers for physicals, gave me shots for trips to Mexico and Europe, handled my blood tests for marriage (took on a new patient), and initiated me into the first pangs of fatherhood—an agonizing 11 hours in the father’s waiting room. I recall sitting there numb when he finally sauntered in with a nurse behind him who carried a small bundle. ‘It’s a boy,’ he happily announced and shook my hand. Three years later he would greet me under the same circumstances and say, “I got you a little girl this time. Now grandma will be happy. Tell her she owes me a bottle.”
Over the years, Blei had developed relationships with a few Chicago editors “who would take anything [he] had.” He was lucky, he said. “I had such a good deal with the newspaper,” Blei recalled in September of 2012. “I started at $200 to $400 a story, and toward the end I was getting $2,000 a story!”
Blei had dreams of ascending to the pantheon of Chicago writers: Algren, Royko, Sandburg, Terkel. But he was also raising a family, and, even with what Blei considered “a good deal” for a freelancer, it was tough to pay the bills in the city. To pay the bills he had to sell his work. But to sell his work, Blei had to do something that he felt was an unacceptable compromise of his vision: he had to write to please others.
So, in 1969, Blei packed up his wife and two kids and fled Chicago, his teaching jobs, and perhaps the most vibrant literary scene in America. He drove them nearly six hours north along the Lake Michigan shore past Milwaukee, around Green Bay, across the Michigan Street Bridge in Sturgeon Bay, and through the picturesque little villages of Door County. Blei took them to Ellison Bay, almost as far north as they could go before hitting the cold waters of Death’s Door, to a home in the woods he bought for $8,000.
“I had kids, the city was on fire with all the riots, then when they had sniper fire on the Eisenhower [Expressway] it was time to get the hell out of there,” he said. “I wanted peace and quiet, and moved up here.”
They could live simply in Door County, he thought. This was a place where the cost of raising a family was minimal, a place where a man could write.
With the help of his neighbor, Blei converted an old chicken coop into his writing den. He adorned the walls with pictures of nude women and crosses, set up a typewriter and, much later, a computer. And there, surrounded by stacks of books, newspapers, and notebooks, at a writing perch that could only be reached by a direct door-to-desk path through the literary debris, Blei wrote.
Blei expected his retreat to the isolated beauty of the peninsula would provide time to craft novels and write about Chicago (which he still did, traveling to the city regularly to interview subjects), but he was stunned to find a wealth of material right outside of his door. (“Nobody had ever written about Gust Klenke before!” he said, reminiscing in excitement about an octogenarian beekeeper he profiled in the 1970s.)
Over the next decade, this man of the Windy City would become the chronicler of the Door, of the people who would never be featured in a visitor’s guide, honored with a school gymnasium, or presented with a plaque at a village hall.
But this journey was not an easy one.
In Chicago, Blei wrote tough-edged prose about people with whom he had or felt very personal, generational connections. It was an insider’s perspective: He told their stories, but, in many ways, the stories were his own. In this new place, the one he called simply “Door,” he was an outsider trying to understand a reticent and skeptical people.
“I came here with a cynical urban writer’s attitude … [yet] I felt continually frustrated,” he said, looking back at those early days in the Door. “They seemed to give only so much before a Do Not Enter sign of sorts was pushed in your face. I have never met a more difficult people to know. … Unless you were born and raised here, subjected to the intricacies of family relations, religion, education, and common relations, you will never know what it is to be a native.”
In Chicago, Blei chronicled the bakers, the barkeeps, the man on a bench, the people who scarcely left their neighborhoods, swallowed by the enormity and electricity of a city on the make. In Door County, there was no getting lost among the crowd. Isolated by geography and, when the winds began to blow across the bay, brutal weather, the people of the Door were lost in the nothingness of long, lonely, penniless winters. In the 1970s and 1980s, America wasn’t looking for heroes amongst those struggling just to get by, amongst people who rarely crossed the Michigan Street Bridge. But that’s where Blei found them.
Blei’s style was not to interpret or to judge his subjects, but to let them go, to let their own words tell it, as he did in profiling his 88-year-old neighbor, Charley Root. In Door Way: The People in the Landscape (Ellis Press, 1981), a collection of profiles of these strange new rural friends, Blei shows how a simple snippet of conversation with a neighbor can provide a vivid glimpse into his mind:
“How many pups you think my Happy had last night?”
“SIX,” my wife guesses.
“TEN?” I ask.
“Thirteen!” laughs Charley. “Kept me up half the night the way they kept comin’. Drowned ’em all this morning in a bucket. There weren’t no pretty black and white ones like my Spots, else I might a kept one. Goshsakes, all the work.”
“HOW COULD YOU DO SUCH A MEAN THING, CHARLEY?” says my wife.
And once again, with a brightness in his eyes, a suddenness of laughter around his mouth, Charley explains, “Ah, you’d be surprised how much I’ve killed with these hands.”
Blei often lamented his status as an outsider in the Door, but this perspective enabled him to put his subjects in the context of the larger story of a community’s evolution, such as when he wrote about Freddie Kodanko, a man known to the locals as The Polka King. An alcoholic who sold hand-made potato crates and drove a tractor where he needed to go because the sheriff had taken away his license for drunk driving eighteen years earlier, Freddie was a relic in a changing town:
Maybe the last of the native folk heroes, people like Freddie fast disappearing form the local history of this land, never to be replaced—certainly not by city folk. All the old Freddies of Door, people with little or nothing, nickel and diming their lives away. Scratching. … Fisherman selling chubs door to door. Small orchardmen being beat continually by the market or the weather. Scratching. All of it going now with the price of land at a premium. The final disappearance of the native—bought out—if he has any land left to sell.
In profiling average Door residents like Charley and Freddie, Blei was composing a sort of people’s history of the Door, ensuring not only that there would be a record of what happened and when, but also illustrating how people weathered dramatic changes in a rural American community.
A close friend of Blei’s, poet and longtime Wisconsin Public Radio journalist Jean Feraca, says that Blei never saw his subjects as average.
“That’s what made Norb special,” she says. “He wanted to bring attention to and praise the rural life.”
At a time when the peninsula was struggling in the transition from rural farming and fishing community to one that would become almost exclusively reliant on the tourism economy, Blei also gave voice to the potters, painters, sculptors, and dancers.
He profiled scores of individuals. And, although he never thought of himself as a historian, Blei’s books became the most comprehensive documentation of life on the peninsula since Hjalmar Holand’s Old Peninsula Days: Tales and Sketches of the Door County was written fifty years earlier.
For this, Blei was loved by the people of the Door. Door Way became a bestseller in the world of small press books, moving more than 10,000 copies and earning praise from publications like the Chicago Tribune, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and other writers, including Studs Terkel.
Chicago poet and publisher Al DeGenova, a long-time student and fan of Blei’s, admires the manner in which Blei treated his subjects.
“The ones who said, Damn it, we’re doing it our way! … always appealed to Norb,” DeGenova says. “The quirky ones, the artistic ones, the ones so different that they don’t fit into the norm, he always found something engaging about what they were doing.”
In the introduction to Door Way, Blei writes that “A simple man’s life is not to be overlooked.” In elevating the unsung inhabitants of a tiny sliver of land jutting out into the vastness of Lake Michigan, Blei celebrates the lives they live, however simple, meager, or hard. For this he earned the mantle, “the Conscience of the Door.” But for much of the thirty years that followed the publication of Door Way, Blei was a writer without a platform, maintaining a regular place in print for only a total of a couple years.
At about the time that Door Way came out, the Door County Advocate let him go, determining that they didn’t have the space in the paper for his lengthy columns. Nor did Advocate editors have the patience for his occasional diatribes and forays into subjects that had little to do with the peninsula (“Does an article on [William] Saroyan belong in the Door County Advocate?” Chan Harris asked in his editorial announcing the decision to end Blei’s column). Blei would not alter his subject matter to keep his byline.
Seven years later, Blei negotiated a column in the weekly shopper, the Door Reminder. Tourism was growing on the peninsula, and with it came development. Blei didn’t like what he saw. Often writing under the pseudonym “Coyote,” Blei fired broadsides at business leaders, developers, religious institutions, gallery owners, and his old employer, which he mockingly called “the Door County Aggravate.” His columns were so incendiary that just four months later, Door Reminder publisher Lon Kopitzke held a reader “vote”—“I counted the ballots,” Kopitzke said years later—which Blei lost, ending his three-month run in the paper.
Blei popped up again in 2002 in the pages of the independent arts and culture weekly, Peninsula Pulse. Again, Blei’s stint was short as he refused to soften his tone or heed an editor’s request for re-writes.
When he looked back at this era in 2012, Blei revealed a trace of regret that he didn’t acquiesce for the sake of having a place to publish, and more importantly, a place to publicly question decisions and ideas that were affecting his beloved Door.
However, this glimmer of regret was quickly eclipsed by the angry, bitter voice of Coyote. “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’s frequent references to “people who don’t trust me” can only be interpreted to mean, “editors.” His agreement with the Reminder was that Kopitzke printed whatever he submitted, and, at the Pulse, Blei turned in lengthy, sometimes rambling prose, which he refused to trim or re-work in any way. In his autobiographical book, The Second Novel: Becoming a Writer (December Press, 1978), Blei sarcastically reprinted several rejection letters, many suggesting re-writes, and even one offering to publish his novel with alterations. True to his vision, he refused to alter his work.
Blei was as well-read a man as you could find, and was known to quote stanzas of cherished authors as though his mind were a literary search engine. He had little respect for editors who couldn’t match this ability. “I never had a literary discussion [with him] that went anywhere,” he said of one former editor. “I bet he’s never read Orwell, or Hemingway. He’s an illiterate editor.”
David Pichaske, founder of Ellis Press, which published Door Way and many other of Blei’s books, said he didn’t dare edit Blei—at least not with the writer’s knowledge. “I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if I tried,” notes Pichaske.
“He never did do well with authority voice telling him what to do, or what he couldn’t do,” admits Blei’s longtime partner, Jude Genereaux. “As much as he did that to others, he couldn’t take it himself, and he lost ground because of that.”
Blei’s exile from newspapers, while a loss to readers, the history books, and his own productivity, was a boon to dozens of writers he would mentor. For forty years Blei taught a writing class at the Clearing Folk School in Ellison Bay, leading a week-long retreat in which Coyote rarely if ever made an appearance.
“He could be so belligerent in print, and some people never got past that,” says DeGenova, who spent many seasons at The Clearing under Blei’s tutelage. “But very few people saw what a masterful teacher he was, the generous spirit he had.”
The man who had such punishing standards for his editors was quite gentle with his writing students. He prodded, guided, and pulled words out of them with care and grace.
“He made people who had never written before feel welcome in his classes,” recalls Paula Kosin. Kosin first encountered Blei as a high school student, reading his profiles in Chicago’s Sunday magazines. For years she wondered why he disappeared from those pages, only to finally find him while planning a trip to Door County decades later.
“His [teaching] preparation was incredible, and his style was collaborative, not competitive,” says Kosin. “He would challenge you, but not tell you how to do it or make you write like him.”
According to Genereaux, as a teacher Blei wasn’t critical. And, she notes, he didn’t try to mold clones of himself. “He encouraged you to find your own voice and path,” she says. “His passion was writing, but his genius was teaching.”
Inspired by his students, Blei started Cross+Roads Press in 1994, which he dedicated to the works of first-time, unpublished writers of record (those who had previous publication in print periodicals, but who had not published their first book). Most of his writers were poets and he published some sketchbooks of artists as well. At Cross+Roads Press Blei would publish one book of the writer’s work, and, once it sold enough to cover his costs, he would split each additional dollar made with the author.
One of these was Dick Purinton, the owner of the Washington Island Ferry, the lifeline between the peninsula and Washington Island, a community of about 800 residents separated from the mainland by a sliver of water known as Death’s Door. Blei was a passenger on the ferry one early winter day and Purinton invited him up to the Captain’s House for the ride.
“Oh God, you gotta write about this!” Norb exclaimed as he admired the stunning and perilous view. “Start January 31st, keep a journal, and in a couple months I’ll check in with you and see what we have.”
Purinton didn’t think much of it.
“Then a couple months later he sent me a packet with a notebook and a pen,” Purinton recalls. “He told me if I wrote it and it was any good, he’d publish it. He was really encouraging and supportive and that gave me a boost of confidence to express myself in a small community—and that’s hard to do.”
Purinton began writing, and his words proved good. Cross+Roads published Words on Water: A Ferryman’s Journal in 2009. It sold more copies than any other Cross+Roads book. All told, Blei’s press would give 35 authors their first published work. Yet Cross+Roads never turned a profit. When a book made a little money, Blei simply invested it the next one.
Blei’s press and gentle nurturing helped many struggling writers, but those close to him, who yearned for more of Blei’s own words, lamented the cost.
“He wanted to be a corrective to the publishing industry’s failings,” Feraca says. “He loved writing so much that he was given over to encouraging new writers more than he was dedicated to his own [writing].”
“It scared me because I knew it would pull him away from other stuff, from his own writing,” says Genereaux.
Blei knew this to be true, but he couldn’t help it. Though there was no repairing the writerly bridges he’d burned over the previous years, perhaps he knew he could help build bridges for other writers. Or teach them to build their own.
Norb Blei died in April of 2013. He was 77.
In July of 2014, the University of Wisconsin Library accepted a donation of Blei’s unpublished papers and writings and is presently at work cataloguing them to be made publicly available in archives and online.
In August of 2014, the chicken coop office where Norb Blei wrote for forty years was moved from his old property in Ellison Bay to the grounds of Write On! Door County, a retreat for writers located between Fish Creek and Egg Harbor on forty acres of woods, meadows and orchards. Blei’s coop will be used as a working space for writers in residence.