Community pays respects to western Wisconsin fire chief who died after COVID-19 diagnosis

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Flags were lowered to half-staff across the state Wisconsin, honoring a man who died on Dec. 17 after contracting COVID-19. The 55-year-old fire chief from Clayton was laid to rest Saturday.

Don Kittelson was hospitalized in November and his community rallied around him. On Saturday, the same supporters said their final goodbyes.

Dozens came out from Wisconsin and Minnesota; many say he wouldn’t have wanted this attention but he deserved the honor.

“It’s anticipated. It’s what we do because it’s a family. It really is. He would probably laugh at me for saying that. He will be missed, this is a very good fire department,” said Tom Barthman, a firefighter.

Kittelson was a third-generation firefighter and an active member of the Clayton Volunteer Fire Department for 34 years.

“When people see him, and say his name, they know exactly the person he was,” Clayton Assistant Fire Chief Jenny Bergman said. “I met Donnie six years ago. Great character, great guy, great community builder, supporter. Good fire chief, good all-around guy.”

Kittelson’s son-in-law, Jordan Drinkman, says the fire chief always proudly served and never insisted on being in the spotlight. He also said Kittelson was a person who wanted to be a good leader and role model to others.

“Honored to know this many people respect him and all showing their respects the same way,” Drinkman said.

A man who will ever be remembered for his dedication, who worked to serve the public until the very end.

“We have an empty locker that’s still full of his gear — and his gear is going to stay there for a while," Bergman said. "When we come around the corner, and we look to him, he was the one that knew where to direct everybody to go and his legacy is that memory of how strong he was, again, how humble he was.

"He was not just a firefighter; he was a teacher, he was our friend. He was all of that, in all of us."

The family invites people to plant trees in Kittelson’s memory.