Residents of the lake country around Crosslake, Minn., say they're having a hard time accepting the loss of Keith Anderson, a beloved community pillar who cheerfully helped scores of  people survive emergencies during 31 years as a volunteer firefighter.

Anderson, 50, who served as the town's fire chief from 2000 until January of this year, died Sunday in a St. Cloud hospital after a brief illness, according to a story in the Brainerd Daily Dispatch.

"He saved so many lives through the years," Crosslake Police Sgt. Erik Lee told the newspaper. "He was always responding to every medical (call) regardless of what it was. It didn't matter if it was Sunday or if it was 20-below out, he went. That was the type of man he was. He was so kind to everyone."

Anderson's fellow firefighters and his co-workers at Simonson Lumber in Crosslake, where he worked for 22 years, said they'll always remember his big smile and hearty laugh and the way he filled the room with his familar, positive and affirming presence. Those traits were invaluable in emergencies, they said. 

"Everyone had great trust with him as the fire chief," said firefighter Joe St. Pierre. "Our lives were in his hands. We went on a lot of first-responder calls together...He taught me how to stay calm. He knew how to be calm, as he had been to so many,."

The newspaper reported that upon his retirement, Anderson told the Lake Country Echo that "being there to help people" gave his life and career meaning.

"When you see somebody come to a tragedy, and you know them, it's very comforting," Anderson said. "I've given a lot of hugs on a lot of rides."