Ashes of former premier Ralph Klein travel through Calgary before public memorial

Memorial a celebration of Klein’s life

(Fred Chartrand / CP)

CALGARY – The man known simply as Ralph made one last trip Friday to the buildings that symbolized his greatest achievements.

The ashes of former Alberta premier Ralph Klein were with his widow Colleen as she accepted the provincial flag at McDougall Centre, the southern office Klein called home when he ran the province from 1992 to 2006.

The flag was flying over the legislature March 29 when Klein died at age 70 after a battle with dementia and lung disease.

After the stop at McDougall, the procession stopped at Municipal Plaza across from city hall, where Mayor Naheed Nenshi proclaimed Friday Ralph Klein Day to honour Klein’s time as mayor from 1980 to 1989.

The day was to be capped by a celebration of Klein’s life at the downtown Jack Singer Concert Hall. Dignitaries expected to speak included Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Alberta Premier Alison Redford.

At the concert hall, people began lining up at 7 a.m. to secure one of the available 1,100 seats.

It was an eclectic mix, ranging from people who knew Klein only as a politician to those who remembered him from his days as a city hall reporter.

“I knew him from the bar days at the Queens Hotel,” said Andie Wolf Leg, sporting a “Ralph Klein for Mayor” button.

“We met in ’79 and we partied like hell. I could still see him dancing and moving about,” said Wolf Leg, who started to dance around as she recalled the story.

“He was a good man and I never saw him in any kind of an argument or a fight.”

Michael Sztogryn was Klein’s neighbour and lined up for a seat inside.

“We saw Ralph Klein on a fairly regular basis in his PT Cruiser and he always said hello. His wife would always say hello when she was walking their dogs,” he said.

“I admired the man. He always said what he meant and he meant what he said and that was a big thing.”

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.

“I will miss him.”

The event was billed by the family as a celebration of Klein’s life as the Everyman politician who was as comfortable in the boardroom as the corner bar and who tailored his policies to better the everyday lives of Alberta’s “Marthas” and “Henrys,” as he often called them.

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 already brought an outpouring of affection from across the country.

More than 1,400 have signed an online condolence book on the government’s website and almost 1,000 have signed remembrance books in person around the province.

On Friday, they came to remember a Calgary-born kid who grew up in Tuxedo Park and after covering Calgary city hall as a TV reporter won a longshot campaign to become mayor in 1980.

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.

When he became premier in 1992, Klein inherited a $23-billion debt and a party facing electoral defeat at the hands of the resurgent Liberals. Instead, the party 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.

In doing so he became a national champion of change within a fiscally responsible framework.

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