Kai Madsen, who helped bring Christmas to needy Winnipeggers for 52 years, has died.
Madsen stepped down from his role as executive director of the Christmas Cheer Board in August. He had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which weakened his lungs and required him to be on oxygen 24/7.
He was at home, surrounded by family, when he died Wednesday.
"You can't say enough good stuff about him" said Shawna Bell, who replaced Madsen as executive director. "(His death) leaves a big hole, and I will do my best to ensure the (Cheer Board)... does right by him."
Madsen, 80, began volunteering at the Cheer Board in 1969. He assembled food and gift hampers and would deliver them with his mentor, Dave Reece. He later became a board member, and took on the executive director position in the 90s.
"When I was a kid, the Cheer Board was Kai," said Bell, whose parents volunteered at the non-profit. "I just always knew that face, and the kindness that came along with (it)."
He was a "connector of people," she said. Under his watch, the non-profit blossomed to an operation that distributes about 17,500 holiday hampers each December. Thousands have volunteered their time and donated money to the organization.
"He had a smile on his face all the time," Bell said. "Everyone was greeted with warmth when they came through the door, and if someone wanted a minute of his time, they got 10."
He remembered names, regardless of whether he'd met someone once or had seen them regularly, Bell said.
"To me, that was one of his best traits. He knew you. He may have only ever met you once, but he knew you."
Mayor Brian Bowman called Madsen a "remarkable Winnipegger."
"Kai... cared deeply for those in need," Bowman said in a written statement. "After decades of working tirelessly with the Winnipeg Christmas Cheer Board, his legacy of cheer will live on in our community."
Madsen was well-known to Free Press readers because of the paper's close association with the Cheer Board through its annual fundraising efforts, said editor Paul Samyn.
"For decades, Kai was a fixture on our pages at Christmas as the face of a Winnipeg institution that made miracles come through for so many needy families over the holidays," he said.
"We always enjoyed working with him and together with our readers, will mourn his passing."
Madsen told the Free Press in August that his illness made everyday tasks, such as taking a shower, more difficult.
He'd worked closely with the board in recent years to prepare for a Cheer Board without him.
Bell was the board president before filling Madsen's role. After he retired, she met with him weekly.
"He always put a lot of thought into everything," Bell said. "He was looking for the best interests of the family that received hampers. I learned to really keep that at the forefront of every decision we make."
When he announced his retirement, Madsen said he would cherish the experience of working for the Cheer Board and was thankful for being able to participate in a "meaningful way" in the community.
"I can’t say enough about Winnipeggers," Madsen said in a statement. "It’s been a wonderful journey, a large part of my life and I owe them a debt of gratitude. I’ve seen the best of everybody and when you think well of people, good things happen."
In a release Wednesday, the president of the Manitoba Metis Federation, paid tribute to Madsen.
"Kai was the epitome of Christmas spirit. Even the COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t stop him from making sure that no child went without Christmas. His spirit and determination made a real and lasting difference in the lives of many families. No one could say no to Kai’s passion for his beautiful work," David Chartrand wrote.
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