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King Ralph had mischievous side, tribute hears

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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 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 oversized driver 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.

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 procession then 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.

Klein is to be buried today in a private ceremony.

-- The Canadian Press


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2013 A22

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