CALGARY – Ralph would have wanted it this way.
A public memorial honouring former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein began Friday with the skirl of bagpipes, solemn faces and a white hearse, but soon morphed into smiles, laughter and memories about a man who wore his heart — and his province — on his sleeve.
“To Albertans he was King Ralph … but we said it in a way that we never meant it,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said to laughs from Klein’s friends, colleagues and constituents at the Jack Singer Concert Hall.
“He was King Ralph only in the sense of being a king-sized character. But in personality and demeanour he was really, to us, Citizen Ralph,” Harper continued to applause.
“He said what he would do and then he did what he said. I admire that. We all admire that.”
Klein died March 29 at age 70 after a battle with dementia and lung disease.
He was premier from 1992 to 2006. While in office he wiped out Alberta’s $23-billion debt and was seen as the national standard bearer for fiscal prudence and living within one’s means.
“He was one of those few individuals you meet in life who don’t need to be referred to by (anything other) than their first name, like Elvis or Tiger,” former Ontario premier Mike Harris told the crowd.
“You said Ralph (and) everybody knew who you were talking about anywhere in Canada.
“He was ahead of us for sure — and Ottawa — in balancing the books, paying down debt (and) living within your means.
“He had a compass that guided him. It was simple for Ralph: this is what needs to be done; now get out of my way so I can do it.”
But Harris said he most remembers Klein as a fishing buddy, a card player and a very trying golfer. He recalled that Klein on the links was willing but not always able, so was prone to taking a lot of second shots.
“The first term (Klein) learned was the word ‘mulligan.’ And he took lots of them,” said Harris to laughter.
“He never cheated. He just took them.”
He said one day he gave Klein an over-sized driver that Klein labelled “Big Mike” and then he bragged about “hitting Big Mike all day long.”
Harris recalled one fishing trip with Klein, who was trying to quit drinking. He said Klein was tested because Harris beat him at cards and then beat him at the fishing derby.
“Ralph didn’t like that,” he said.
“As steamed as he was … Ralph never had a real drink. He did, however, drink this half per cent near-beer. About 27 or 28 of them.”
Shirley McClellan, Klein’s former cabinet colleague and at one point his deputy premier, said the man she knew as “Boss” had a mischievous side.
Klein was an avid fan of the Calgary Flames and Calgary Stampeders, said McClellan.
She was not.
Nevertheless when the Stampeders went to the Grey Cup, Klein ordered her to go fly the flag for the province in support of the team.
She told Klein she didn’t own any Stampeder gear.
“Buy some,” she recalled him telling her.
“I went (to the game), we won, and it was great.”
Former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, in his tribute, recalled one premiers meeting that turned into “a political equivalent of a full hockey brawl” over medicare funding.
Eventually, said Romanow, they came to a Klein-brokered agreement.
Klein then sent out for Chinese food and demanded “that we enjoy it together as friends and Canadians from sea to sea to sea bound by this great country. That was Ralph Klein.”
Alberta Premier Alison Redford said Klein worked tirelessly to earn the honorific “people’s premier.”
She recounted a day when Klein, during a northern tour of the province, stopped on the spur of the moment to meet and have coffee with people at a hockey rink in Vermilion.
“What struck me about that wasn’t only that he did it, but I didn’t hear about that story in Vermilion. I heard about it in Pincher Creek (in southern Alberta), because somebody who was at the arena in Vermilion called their aunt in Pincher Creek and told them they just sat and had coffee with the premier. And that was Ralph Klein.”
Earlier Friday, before the memorial, Klein made one last symbolic trip to the buildings that bore witness to his greatest achievements.
His ashes were with his widow, Colleen, as she accepted a provincial flag at McDougall Centre, the southern office Klein called home when he ran the province. The flag was flying over the legislature when Klein died in a Calgary care home.
After the stop at McDougall, the procession stopped at Municipal Plaza across from city hall, where Mayor Naheed Nenshi proclaimed Friday to be Ralph Klein Day to honour Klein’s time as mayor from 1980 to 1989.
At the concert hall, people began lining up at 7 a.m. to secure one of the 1,100 seats available for the general public. There were an additional 500 seats for invited guests.
Sally Black, a member of the Siksika Nation near Calgary, was crying as she stood in line. She said Klein was a pallbearer for her mother and father and she considers him a brother.
“He was well respected because of the way he treated native people. He got involved with them. There was no barrier. He was just like the rest of us,” said Black.
Klein had a special affinity for First Nations and the eagle feather he often carried with him was on stage for the memorial.
The Alberta government offered to hold a state funeral, similar to the one given to former premier Peter Lougheed last year. But the family turned down the request, preferring instead to have a city-organized celebration for one of its favourite sons.
Klein’s death has brought an outpouring of affection from across the country.
More than 1,400 have posted online condolences on the government’s website and almost 1,000 have signed remembrance books in person.
On Friday, they came to remember a Calgary-born kid who grew up and covered city hall as a TV reporter before he won a long-shot campaign to become mayor.
After winning three terms and hosting the 1988 Winter Olympics, Klein leapt to provincial politics, winning a seat for Premier Don Getty’s Progressive Conservative party and then replacing him in a leadership vote in 1992.
As premier, Klein inherited crushing debt and a party facing electoral defeat at the hands of the resurgent Liberals. Instead, the Tories won the first of four majorities under his leadership.
He slashed jobs and cut spending. Protesters railed against him, but he refused to change course and became more popular for it. As his popularity grew and the debt shrunk, he became comfortable with success, telling supporters after an election win: “Welcome to Ralph’s World!”
Klein is to be buried Saturday in a private ceremony.
— With files from Dean Bennett and Lauren Krugel