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Colleen Klein, arrives with her family at the Jack Singer Concert Hall on Friday, April 5, 2013 at the Celebration of Life service for her late husband Ralph. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)
Colleen Klein, arrives with her family at the Jack Singer Concert Hall on Friday, April 5, 2013 at the Celebration of Life service for her late husband Ralph. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

Leaders, ordinary folks celebrate Citizen Ralph at memorial Add to ...

They arrived wearing their Ralph Klein campaign buttons. Some dressed in the tuxedo T-shirts that were handed out at the closing of Calgary’s seedy St. Louis Hotel, one of Mr. Klein’s favourite watering holes as the city’s mayor, and later, Alberta’s premier. But everyone, even those who didn’t know him personally, stood patiently in line with their stories on Friday for a public memorial service fit for King Ralph.

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“I guess I’m one of Ralph Klein’s creeps and bums,” said Dan Walker, who moved to Alberta from Nova Scotia in 1989, and now works in the oil sands, reflecting on Mr. Klein’s infamous 1982 speech, which derided those from Eastern Canada who moved to Calgary without jobs, homes or money.

“I really resented that at first,” Mr. Walker continued. “But we took advantage of what this province, and what he had a part in helping to create here, to make a great place to live and raise a family.”

Mr. Klein died at age 70 on March 29, Good Friday, after a prolonged battle with frontotemporal dementia, complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pneumonia.

His wife of 42 years, Colleen Klein, turned down the province’s offer of a state funeral, as was held last year for former premier Peter Lougheed, preferring that the city where Mr. Klein got his start host the event.

Mr. Klein was remembered with laughs, and a few tears, by about 1,300 people at the Jack Singer Concert Hall and another 700 at other formal events around the city. He was honoured by current and former prime ministers and premiers, but fittingly the bulk were ordinary folks, whom Mr. Klein often referred to as “Martha and Henry” when he was in office. He was feted as an everyman who became a nation-builder.

“To Albertans he was King Ralph,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper eulogized.

“People outside Alberta don’t get that,” he added, to laughter. “We said it in a way that we never meant it. 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.”

Mr. Klein had a rough upbringing, but became the rumpled television reporter who, almost on a whim, won the mayor’s seat in 1980, helping bring the Winter Olympics to Calgary in 1988. He went on to the provincial legislature, where in another long-shot bid later dubbed the “miracle on the Prairies” became Progressive Conservative leader. He sat as premier from 1992 until 2006, and in the course of it, slayed the province’s $23-billion debt through some dramatic and unpopular cuts, but still managed to win four consecutive majorities.

For former Ontario premier Mike Harris, who also paid tribute at the service, Mr. Klein was a mentor who helped guide his government’s “Common Sense Revolution” as he, too, stared down a massive debt and deficit.

“Ralph genuinely cared and privately fretted about what those cutbacks meant to the little guy,” Mr. Harris said of the “Klein Revolution.”

Mr. Harris also remembered him as a competitive fishing buddy and somewhat hapless golfer.

“The first term he learned was the word mulligan,” Mr. Harris said. “And he took lots of them. He never cheated. He just took them.”

Roy Romanow, former NDP premier from Saskatchewan, also recalled days spent with his friend on the links, including one game played against Mr. Klein and former Ontario premier Mike Harris.

The conservative premiers were winning handily, when a double or nothing bet was laid down and Mr. Romanow’s pairing came from behind to win on the 18 hole.

As they walked off the green, Mr. Klein leaned in and said, “Roy, I guess it never pays to be too cocky.”

“When you stop and think about it, that was basically Ralph Klein,” Mr. Romanow said at the ceremony.

Before the “celebration of life” event, Mrs. Klein went with her husband’s ashes to the McDougall Centre, the late premier’s southern Alberta headquarters, where she was presented with the Alberta flag that was flying at the legislature when Mr. Klein died.

At City Hall, she was met by the mayor, Naheed Nenshi, where he officially proclaimed Friday, Ralph Klein Day.

More than 1,400 people signed an online condolence book, while another 1,000 visited government buildings to offer their memories.

Shirley McClellan, who was finance minister and deputy premier under Mr. Klein, called him “the most popular premier in Canada” during her tribute.

“He was truly a man of the people. A man who people were more comfortable calling Ralph, than premier,” she said.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford recalled the time Mr. Klein had his motorcade stop at a hockey arena in Vermilion, just so he could get out and have coffee with those inside.

“He was the people’s premier,” she said.

That’s why Brian Naylen Sorrell, his wife and four children, aged 6 through 9, were first in line at 7 a.m. to ensure they got seats at the service. The family moved to Calgary from Hong Kong in 2005, never met Mr. Klein, yet felt compelled to honour him.

“It was also important to us that our kids learn things just don’t happen magically,” he said. “You have to work at it. He did work at it, and because he did, we have these things to enjoy.”

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