03/29/2013 05:01 EDT | Updated 05/29/2013 05:12 EDT

Alberta's Ralph Klein is being remembered as fair, down-to-earth, beloved

CALGARY - Ralph Klein was being remembered Friday as an impishly grinning, jowly jawed political force of nature who carried the flag for a conservative revolution in Canada while remaining so popular that voters called him by his first name.

"To me, he wasn't King Ralph, as some described him," said Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a news release.

"Instead, during a colourful political career he remained Citizen Ralph — a man equally at home in the Petroleum Club as he was in the St. Louis Hotel. A man who said what he believed and did what he said.

“Alberta and Canada have lost a unique and significant leader. While Ralph’s beliefs about the role of government and fiscal responsibility were once considered radical, it is perhaps his greatest legacy that these ideas are now widely embraced across the political spectrum," added Harper.

Klein, Alberta's premier from 1992 to 2006, died Friday at age 70 in a care facility in Calgary after battling a form of dementia, lung problems and pneumonia.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford hailed her predecessor as a visionary who loved people and instinctively understood what he was doing and why.

Redford, in a conference call with reporters, recalled working for Klein as a campaign volunteer at his Calgary-Elbow constituency and hearing him tell stories from his nights of door-knocking.

"It was usually standing in a coffee room, him leaning against a counter just talking about whatever struck him that day," said Redford

"It was always about the personal story, about understanding exactly how the work government was doing impacted people and always being very thoughtful about that."

Redford said condolence books will be set up in government buildings across the province. There will also be an online tribute page. Deputy Premier Thomas Lakaszuk said the province has offered a state funeral, but there has been no word on whether Klein's relatives would accept. "Families have their own ways of dealing with a loss," he added.

Klein's wife, Colleen, said she'll remember her husband of 42 years as a man who knew his priorities and values.

"In his public life, while many will now debate what he stood for, he himself simply believed that public service was important, that it need not be complicated, and that it revolved around people," she said in a news release.

"In his private life, his greatest gift to his family was that when the long work days were over, and he came home, it was his sanctuary and the politics stopped at the door."

Klein began his political career with a stint in civic politics — as mayor of Calgary — and he proudly presided over the Winter Olympics in 1988.

Calgary's current mayor, Naheed Nenshi, made it clear on Friday that the city has suffered a particular loss.

"The many highlights of his career and political legacy will undoubtedly be shared over the coming days, and many Albertans will mourn him as a beloved former premier," Nenshi said in a release. "But Calgary was always the city he called home. A true born-and-raised Calgarian, he served as mayor from 1980-1989 and, to me, he will always be Mayor Klein."

The president of the Canadian Olympic Committee called Klein a true supporter of Canada's athletes.

"There is no question that Canada’s success at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, and its current status as a leading Winter nation, is directly attributable Calgary’s hosting of the 1988 Games, Marcel Aubut said in a statement.

Klein's family has asked the City of Calgary to organize a public "celebration of life" for Klein and the city said details will be shared as arrangements are made.

Former prime minister Jean Chretien told The Canadian Press that he was friends with Klein since the early 1980s and that while the two had their differences, he always found him fair and co-operative.

Chretien saluted Klein for not being brash about Alberta's wealth, saying the premier was aware he was privileged to have resource revenue but showed a great desire to keep Canada united.

"He was populist, close to the people and ... he was not a guy who wanted to play the big shot," said Chretien.

Klein ran the controls in Alberta in the worst of times and the best of times.

When he became premier in 1992, the province was $23 billion in debt, riding a deep trough in oil prices, and his Progressive Conservatives were facing a looming election defeat at the hands of the Liberals. Klein led the party to victory and began cutting jobs to bring the debts and deficits under control.

It was not a popular move, but he stayed the course. Slowly the deficits turned into multibillion-dollar surpluses as oil prices first rebounded, then soared through the roof.

Calgary resident Pat Morton, interviewed on the street on Friday, said that while Klein was a character, he will probably be remembered most for his financial thoughts.

"He brought the province out of debt and had the attitude if you didn't have the money, you didn't spend it," he said.

Former Ontario premier Mike Harris said he will miss Klein and his passionate approach to public service and life.

"Ralph was my colleague, my mentor and, most importantly, my friend."

Former Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow said the brash Klein so often portrayed in the media was not the whole story.

"He was a committed Canadian and I think when the full story is written he will get much more credit for that, and for me that is a very important contribution for any premier to make," said Romanow, who also noted that Klein was more quiet and thoughtful at premiers conferences than his sometimes outspoken public persona would suggest.

"He certainly was more flamboyant in the public eye than behind closed doors."

In Alberta, Klein's legacy lives on not only on the government benches, but also on the opposition side.

In the last election, the right-of-centre Wildrose party became the official opposition on a Klein-esque platform of balanced budgets, smaller government and prioritized spending.

"We've lost a hero of the conservative movement," said Wildrose leader Danielle Smith.

"He was an amazing man who had a very clear vision of what he wanted to accomplish, set out and did it. He made mistakes along the way but was always humble enough to admit it.

"He really was a rare politician, and will be sorely missed."

— With files from Dean Bennett in Edmonton