But Colleen Klein also managed to add a dash of levity to the bittersweet occasion.
As she posed for photos with Gov. Gen. David Johnston, she opened her blazer to reveal a 1992 Progressive Conservative leadership campaign pin with her husband's grinning face on it. The gesture was met with laughter and applause from the small group of guests.
"It surprised me. You could see it surprised the Governor General," Klein adviser and longtime family friend Rod Love said afterwards.
Klein was also given a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal — something Love said had not been expected.
Colleen Klein put her hand to her chest as Johnston presented the second medal to her.
The former premier, who now holds the rank of officer of the Order, has a form of dementia and no longer makes public appearances.
"He's struggling, but he's comfortable," said Love, who added that Colleen Klein would be visiting her husband after the ceremony to show him the medals.
"I think Colleen believes he'll know," Love said, his voice hoarse with emotion.
Order of Canada medals normally are given out at a big ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. Love said it was a "great gesture" to bring the event to Calgary in this particular case.
Among the guests were Klein's daughter Teresa, former provincial cabinet ministers, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and the woman who runs Klein's favourite restaurant in the city's Chinatown.
"It was very emotional. I think every one of us in that room wished that Ralph could have been there to accept that himself," said Shirley McClellan, who served as Klein's finance minister and deputy premier.
"But also we're quite overcome by how gracious Colleen was in the acceptance and there's no question it was a Ralph and Colleen team."
Klein was elected leader of Alberta’s Tories on Dec. 5, 1992, and was sworn in as the province's 12th premier nine days later.
He led the party to victory in 1993 and again in 1997 and 2001.
Before entering provincial politics, Klein served three terms as mayor of Calgary after a career in the news media.
"During his time in public service he made some very challenging decisions in order to grow our economy. He also created an endearing and enduring relationship with Albertans, who affectionately refer to him as Ralph," Alberta Premier Alison Redford said in a release.
Danielle Smith, leader of the Opposition Wildrose party, said Klein's induction into the Order of Canada was "long overdue."
"As the driving force behind creating the Alberta Advantage, Premier Klein shaped our province into a global leader in fiscal responsibility and forward-thinking budgeting," she said.
"His premiership will always be remembered for paying off our provincial debt, eliminating the budget deficit and putting money in the bank for future generations. The prosperity we enjoy today is due in large part to Premier Klein’s efforts."
Love said the former premier would have been grateful had he been well enough to attend Tuesday's ceremony.
"But — how do you put it — he always felt his reward was public service. He appreciated the medals he got because of the sentiment of the people who gave them.
"You know Ralph. It wasn't about the medals. It was about the people."
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