Friends and relatives are mourning the death of Dr. Joseph C. Kiser, a Minneapolis heart surgeon whose philanthropic efforts resulted in lifesaving cardiac procedures and treatments for thousands of poor and needy children worldwide.

Kiser died April 11 at his home in New Mexico. He was 86.

The West Virginia native helped found a charity, now named Children’s HeartLink, 50 years ago after a colleague in his Minneapolis practice told him about children dying amid the Vietnam War from a congenital condition known as Tetralogy of Fallot. Oxygen deprivation caused the children to turn blue, and they were known as “blue babies.”

Kiser and his partner arranged to fly these children for free to Minneapolis for heart surgeries and follow-up care. Today the organization works in five countries to train local practitioners to treat sick children themselves.

Children’s HeartLink efforts benefited 135,000 children last year.

“Joe Kiser believed that no matter what happened in the world, people will rally to help save the lives of children,” said Jackie Boucher, president of Children’s HeartLink. “Through his passion and commitment, he has saved so many children with heart disease.”

Kiser came from modest means, hitchhiking to undergraduate classes at Northwestern University in Chicago and babysitting to afford medical school at West Virginia University. He came to Minnesota through his internships at Minneapolis General Hospital, a predecessor of HCMC, and the University of Minnesota, and eventually co-founded the Minneapolis Heart Institute.

Friends said Kiser had remarkable humility, declining efforts to name his charity or scholarships after him. And yet his achievements resulted in numerous honors, such as a Joseph C. Kiser Day in Parkersburg, W.Va.

Two “great Americans” were picked from each state to attend the rededication of the Statue of Liberty in 1986, and Kiser was one of them, said longtime friend Tom Keller.

“One of the most civilized people I’ve ever met,” Keller said. “Jolly, warm and charitable.”

Kiser loved opera, poetry and especially books — entreating those around him to read or listen to what he had learned. Boucher recalled leaving one of her first meetings with Kiser with a list of five books.

“ ‘You should read this book,’ ” she recalled him saying. “ ‘It’s on the history of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — everyone should read it!’ ”

Kiser enjoyed cooking and invited friends for dinners and classical music. He even conducted once in a while. A wrestler in college, Kiser also enjoyed golfing, playing tennis and fishing — and sailing voyages in the open Caribbean Sea with his second wife, Laura.

Kiser instilled a love of adventure, diversity and service in his children, who sometimes traveled with him to volatile locations where he tried to make new medical contacts, daughter Meg Kiser McGowen said. “He took a lot of risks that people didn’t even know about.”

Keller and Kiser became friends after a chance meeting in which they shared the same interest in a Persian poem — “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám” — that among other things urges people to embrace opportunities in life.

One of its passages has special meaning now, Keller said.

“ ‘For some we loved, the loveliest and the best, That from his Vintage rolling Time hath pressed,’ ” Keller recited. “Joe Kiser was among ‘the loveliest and the best.’ ”

Kiser was preceded in death by his first wife, Pamela, who was the mother of their four children — daughters Jody Flood, Dr. Wendy Nazarian and Meg Kiser McGowen and son J.C. Kiser. He is also survived by his second wife, Laura, and nine grandchildren. A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. May 10 at Wayzata Community Church.