VILLAGE OF CLAYTON — Donald Kittelson, 55, beloved fire chief of the nearly 600-person village of Clayton in Polk County, died of complications of COVID-19 this month after weeks in the hospital.
First hospitalized in Wisconsin on Nov. 7, Kittelson was transferred to Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota three days later. He died there on Dec. 17, according to an obituary.
Kittelson was a well-known community figure even outside the fire hall, said Jenny Bergmann, the fire station’s second assistant chief. The oft-nicknamed ‘Chief Don’ worked at the volunteer fire department for 34 years, first as secretary and treasurer, then as captain, assistant chief and finally department chief, Bergmann said.
“We lost a hero tonight. You have touched so many ... Love you CHIEF DON — you will never be forgotten,” the fire department wrote in a Facebook post the day of Kittelson’s death.
As of December, Kittelson had served as fire chief for three years, overseeing the village’s volunteer fire department of about 25 people.
Gov. Tony Evers ordered that U.S. and Wisconsin flags be flown at half-staff on Saturday in honor of Kittelson, who is believed to have contracted COVID-19 in the line of duty.
“Fire Chief Kittelson served the Clayton community for more than 34 years years. A third-generation firefighter, he was a pillar of his community and a mentor to many, sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm for firefighting with the next generation,” Evers said in a statement. “Our deepest condolences and thoughts are with his family, loved ones, the Clayton Volunteer Fire Department, and the entire Clayton community as they grapple with this loss.”
Kittelson’s colleagues remember him as a third-generation firefighter, a calm leader and a patient educator of community kids who were interested in fire services, Bergmann said.
“He treated everyone the same, and I think that was the most honorable thing about him,” Bergmann said. “He was direct, honest, but he was always himself.”
In addition to leading the fire department, Kittelson drove milk trucks for Miller Transfer, according to his obituary.
Because of his job, Kittelson wasn’t always around when the volunteer fire department got calls, Bergmann said — but he would call the firefighters afterward to check up on them and ask how the incident went.
“There was never a question in what we did, because he knew he had us ready for those jobs,” Bergmann said. “He knew where we all belonged in the roles that were needed.”
Kittelson also spent time involved with the department’s Explorers program, which educated local kids and young adults about firefighting and how the fire station functioned. Kittelson was always willing to show curious students around the fire trucks and gear, Bergmann said.
“It takes a special person to be that way,” she said. “He was very patient.”
In November, when Kittelson was hospitalized locally then transferred to the Minnesota hospital, the Clayton community rallied around the fire chief.
The fire department handed out over 400 yard signs that month with messages of hope and support for Kittelson. In addition to the village of Clayton, the signs made it to southern Wisconsin, Minnesota and even Florida, Bergmann said.
Kittelson’s fire department colleagues are planning a fire truck procession after Kittelson’s celebration of life Jan. 2 at the fire hall, Bergmann said.
Bergmann and the village’s other volunteer firefighters will participate in an honor guard ceremony honoring the chief.
“I think that’s something that will never be forgotten by our members,” Bergmann said. “He was a very special guy, and as a line-of-duty death as a firefighter, this is really an honor for us to be able to do this for him.”