CALGARY -- Six years after leaving public office, the man simply known as "Ralph" to most Albertans has been named an officer of the Order of Canada.

"It's high time. The family is very, very happy," said Rod Love, former Alberta premier Ralph Klein's longtime friend and political adviser.

"We think it is absolutely the appropriate recognition for a quarter of a century in public life, and his accomplishments at City Hall, in environment and 14 years as premier really speak for themselves."

Klein, 69, has been in poor health since shortly after retiring as premier. He's battling dementia and chronic lung problems related to smoking. He is now in a nursing home in Calgary.

His wife, Colleen, said family members told Klein of the honour during a visit earlier this week.

"While words are difficult, his face brightened, and he smiled," she said in a statement. "Ralph is ailing now, but will always remain strong and vibrant in the hearts and minds of Albertans and all who believe in public service and what it can achieve when offered inspiring leadership."

The Order of Canada recognizes people from all sectors of Canadian society for a lifetime of outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation.

Klein, who was mayor of Calgary from 1980 to 1989 and Alberta's premier from 1992 to 2006, was on a list released Friday by Gov. Gen. David Johnston "for his decades-long contributions to Alberta as a journalist, mayor of Calgary and premier."

During his leadership of the province he used austerity measures and privatization initiatives, coupled with multibillion-dollar, oil-fuelled budget surpluses, to eradicate Alberta's accumulated $23-billion debt.

His cut-and-slash, damn-the-torpedoes philosophy -- dubbed the The Klein Revolution -- changed the political tenor in Canada over deficit budgeting. His four majority governments proved that politicians who did what they promised and stayed the course could surmount the most divisive of policies.

It was the signal achievement of a politician marketed as a party-hearty man of the people, but who was actually a complex individual of humble background and razor-sharp political instincts.

Love believes Klein, who started out in TV news before moving to politics, should be remembered for one thing in particular.

"He gave politicians a good name. On so many lists of least respected professions, politicians are right up near the top with journalists frankly.

"People liked Ralph. They liked him as a politician. He talked to them and when he listened to them he listened to them," Love said.

"He made being a politician a positive thing and that to me in this day and age is a pretty amazing thing that in 25 years he never lost an election and he left without any enemies."

While Klein may not have made any permanent enemies, his colourful quotes, caustic remarks and questionable antics often put him at the centre of controversy.

As mayor, he blamed Calgary's rising crime rate on "creeps and bums" from eastern Canada. As environment minister, he publicly returned a one-finger salute from a protester. And as premier, he was accused of plagiarizing a paper on a college course he was taking.

In the legislature, he once tossed a document book about in anger and hit a page.

A low moment came in 2001 when Klein, who would afterwards admit he had a drinking problem, drunkenly stumbled into an Edmonton homeless shelter, tossed some money about and angrily told the residents to get jobs.

Yet his foibles seemed only to endear him to the public as an Everyman who understood the Average Joe.

Love said it's "bittersweet" that the honour has come at a time when Klein can't appreciate it.

Current Alberta Premier Alison Redford credited Klein's legacy as part of the reason "Albertans enjoy an envious quality of life" today.

"Ralph had a long and successful tenure as premier of Alberta, shepherding this province through some very tough times," she said in a statement. "He had to make difficult choices and he did so with the overwhelming support of Albertans -- listening to them, and following through on their priorities."

Former Alberta premier Don Getty said he isn't surprised that Klein received the honour.

"While he was working, he was working hard and doing what he thought was right for Alberta, and I think he deserves that award," said Getty, who recruited Klein to run for the Progressive Conservatives.

"I said, ' I would like to have lunch with you' and so we met down at the St. Louis (hotel in Calgary). We had a beer and then I said, 'Ralph, think about it' and a little time went by and then he called me and said, 'OK. Let's talk.'

"I was interested in recruiting him because first of all he was a Calgarian and at the time we didn't have any leadership from our Calgarians.

"He joined us and did the job well."