The beloved fire chief in the western Wisconsin town of Clayton has died of COVID-19 following a five-week battle with the illness.

Donald Kittelson's death Thursday at age 55 has left a void at the fire station and in the 550-person town an hour northeast of St. Paul where he graduated from high school and spent 34 years with the Fire Department, rising through the ranks to become its chief.

"We lost a hero tonight," a posting on the Clayton Fire Department Facebook page read.

Kittelson, known to many as "Chief Don," was a third-generation firefighter. He was dedicated to his trade and leading the 25-member volunteer department, said Jenny Bergmann, the department's second assistant chief.

"When a call came in, he'd always say, 'I trained you to do your job and I know you will do it,' " Bergmann said. "There was never a worry. He had that heart for us."

Kittelson, who also drove a milk truck, was a no-nonsense guy, Bergmann said. But the tall, burly man was also kindhearted and loved meeting people, she said. He was particularly fond of young people and often stopped to talk to them.

Kittelson got sick with COVID, pneumonia and meningitis in early November and was taken to Regions Hospital and placed on a ventilator. In the weeks following, the community rallied around him. Bergmann had 75 lawn signs that read "We support Chief Don" and "Come Home Safe" made up. They sold for $20 apiece.

The first batch went fast, so Bergmann ordered more. Soon more than 400 signs dotted the community and popped up in neighboring towns. One was bought by somebody in Florida.

"The plan was for him to come home and see those signs," Bergmann said. "This is tough. He was locker No. 1 and it looks so sad right now."

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768