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The premier gets a kiss at the Annual Ralph Klein Pancake Breakfast in 2006. (Larry MacDougal/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The premier gets a kiss at the Annual Ralph Klein Pancake Breakfast in 2006. (Larry MacDougal/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Saying goodbye

A memorial fit for King Ralph Add to ...

Preferring a lighthearted public memorial service to a formal state funeral, loved ones plan to celebrate the life of former Alberta premier Ralph Klein on Friday in Calgary.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will attend the ceremony, Ottawa confirmed on Sunday, and former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, one of Mr. Klein’s closest friends, will be among speakers chosen by Mr. Klein’s wife, Colleen, at the event set for Jack Singer Concert Hall.

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“Everybody’s tired of crying,” said Rod Love, Mr. Klein’s former chief of staff and long-time friend, “Let’s have some fun on Friday. So hopefully, the half dozen she’s asked to speak will take it in that tone.”

And in the spirit of Mr. Klein’s good humour, Mr. Love pointed out that his friend was born on All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1, 1942), died on Good Friday at the age of 70, and everyone spent Sunday joking that he’d rise again.

“Every time the phone rings, we jump and say, ‘He died on Good Friday, the resurrection’s on Sunday,’ ” Mr. Love said, laughing.

The province offered Mr. Klein’s family a state memorial, as was held last year for former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed, but Mrs. Klein declined the honour.

“The only one thing she said was, ‘I want the city to do this because that’s where it started and that’s where it’s going to end,’ ” Mr. Love said.

Final details are still being worked out, but the vast majority of seats at the downtown concert hall, which holds 1,800 people, will be set aside for the public, not VIPs, on a first-come, first-served basis. It is also a fitting location, not far from City Hall where Mr. Klein sat in the mayor’s office from 1980 to 1989 after quitting his career in broadcast journalism. He became premier in 1992, a position he held until 2006 when he was pushed out by his own Progressive Conservative party in a lukewarm leadership review.

Mr. Klein had been in failing health and in hospital since 2011, suffering from frontotemporal dementia, complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pneumonia. He lived a heavy-smoking, hard-drinking life, but managed to work in a rigorous exercise routine, and despite his foibles, including throwing money at a man in a homeless shelter and later admitting to his troubles with alcohol, remained exceedingly popular in the province.

His family and confidants had said some members of the party abandoned the man once known as King Ralph as he faded from public view and his illnesses progressed. But when news of Mr. Klein’s death was announced on Friday, party faithful, political foes and leaders from across the country paid tribute to a man who was once a political giant. Provincial and Calgary municipal flags were flying at half-mast.

Mr. Klein was renowned for helping bring the Winter Olympics to Calgary in 1988 and slaying Alberta’s $23-billion debt. All the while, he maintained his common touch.

Cindy Karpiak, of Kamloops, B.C., was among those who signed condolence books set up by the province online and in government buildings.

“A heart breaks today for a friend I never met,” she wrote. “I am an Albertan and lived with Ralph as my mayor and my premier for all those years. It was an honour to live under his courage, his guidance, his charm and his wit.”

Don Getty, who preceded Mr. Klein as premier, echoed that sentiment.

“He quickly became our hero. That’s why I called him a damn good Albertan,” Mr. Getty said.

Mr. Klein’s former campaign manager, Alan Hallman, plans to wear orange and blue – Tory party colours – at the memorial service, and hopes others will, too.

“The province owes Colleen and the entire Klein family a huge debt of gratitude for sharing Ralph with us,” he said.

Mr. Klein was in a palliative-care centre in Calgary when he died in his sleep, surrounded by loved ones.

Mr. Love said Mrs. Klein has been comforted by all the tributes, media coverage and outpouring of support over the weekend. The former chief of staff said he spent the weekend reminiscing with members of the so-called Klein gang.

“There’s a few of us who were with him from Day 1 and we had a front-row seat at one of the most incredible rides in Canadian political history,” he recalled. “You just feel so grateful to be a part of it. You look back and go, wow. Did all that really happen?”

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