Kirk Keller, by many accounts a "force of nature" for his diverse contributions in this county over the years, died early Thursday at Kitty Askins Hospice Center. He was 57.

His job was instructor at Wayne Community College in the business administration/operations management and mechanical engineer programs.

But if there was a cause for his community, he would likely say "yes," said those who knew him.

From applying makeup and dressing up like singer Susan Boyle for the campus kickoff to raise scholarship funds to kissing a pig in the park for the Boys and Girls Club, he could also be found digging up artifacts in downtown Goldsboro or putting the finishing touches on a Civil War replica cannon that would make its home in Fort Macon.

Two weeks ago he experienced chest pains and was later airlifted to Vidant in Greenville.

"He had a couple strokes and also a torn aorta," said close friend, attorney Geoff Hulse, who took on the role of "intermediary" for the family, providing updates on Facebook in the days since. "His family wanted me to give others the chance to grieve a little bit and express their love."

Keller remained in ICU until Monday night, Hulse said.

"The doctors said the Kirk we all know was not going to come back," he said.

"He was put in the palliative care unit until a bed came open at Kitty Askins Hospice Center."

Keller was able to be brought back to his hometown Wednesday night and passed away early Thursday morning.

The outpouring of love, support and prayers since the news hit social media on April 13 was beyond description, Hulse said.

He said Keller's family was aware that their son and brother knew a lot of people but "had no idea" how beloved he was.

"It's kind of a situation where Kirk always lifted up the community, and here at the end, the community returned the favor by lifting up the family and giving them strength," Hulse said.

Keller had been a big part of Hulse's life -- and that of his wife and daughters -- he said. The two often took turns being each other's sidekick and partner in crime whenever an opportunity arose.

A sparkle in his eye, a sly grin, Keller was a "community force," Hulse said.

"He was so energetic and so passionate about whatever cause," he said.

His appearance and his personality were in stark contrast to any single category, Hulse said.

"What made him such an unusual person -- he was a big man, he was a tough guy, if he needed to be," he said. "But he was as tender-hearted as anybody I have ever met.

"He'd call me up and say, 'People love it when we argue' and he would just start something."

Dr. Ed Wilson, former president of Wayne Community College, got to know Kirk more through the Chamber of Commerce, particularly the Wayne Education Network, which Wilson directs.

"My relationship with him has always been very supportive -- he's done a lot for the college, a lot in the community," he said. "He was very helpful with WEN, helping us with the STEM fair and career fair, particularly.

"He also helped us with the bus tour we do for new teachers. He helped design that. Obviously, he's done a lot in the community, but he was always a guy you could go to and glad to help any way he could."

Brent Hood, director of communications at WCC, had his own fond memories of the "big strong guy" who was also a practical joker.

On one occasion, they were both part of a campus event, featuring the familiar Saturday Night Live skit embodied by Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken asking for "more cowbell."

Keller, in this case, rang the bell, right behind Hood's head.

"My ears are still ringing," he said with a laugh.

"I literally think I can still hear that cowbell ringing in my ear."

But as hilarious and good-natured as Keller was, boundless was his energy and passion -- for students and for Wayne County.

"Kirk was just such a selfless person," Hood said.

"He did so much in the community, which everybody knows.

"It was interesting to see how far-reaching he was -- beyond digging for artifacts in the ground and the plays he's done and all the stupid stuff he's done with Geoff Hulse, there was a serious side to him as well."

Jack Kannan, former executive director of the WCC Foundation, suggested Keller is probably "the most beloved one at the college." Keller was always his first go-to person whenever it came time for the faculty kickoff fundraiser for Foundation scholarships.

"I had him involved because he kept us laughing," Kannan said, adding, "The second thing is that whenever we did the Civil War series, the 150th anniversary, for four years he helped emcee that whole extravaganza.

"He was dedicated and he loved it. He did a great job. He was just very giving of his time for things he had passion for and had passion for the college. Kirk was always there, as long as he was needed."

Keller served as the president of the Friends of Cliffs of the Neuse State Park, was the recent chairman of the Wayne County Historical Association, project manager of the Wayne Community College/Fort Macon cannon project that provided three new live fire cannons to Fort Macon State Park, the Friends board for Wayne County's War Memorial, helped design the new Veteran's War Memorial, was the project leader for the World War II veterans' interviews for Wayne County, served as emcee for United Way, Relay for Life and was a Kitty Askins volunteer, Downtown Goldsboro Development Corporation's "Santa" during Lights Up and for the Mount Olive festivities every year and was the project manager for the "Downtown Goldsboro Artifact Recovery Project."

His funeral will be at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 22, at The First Church, 1100 The First Church Road, Goldsboro.

Interment will be Monday, April 23, 2018, at 11 a.m. in Wayne Memorial Park.