For most of Richard Felner's career in the Fire Department, David W. Russell Jr. was a guiding force.

When Felner, who now is chief, was a rookie firefighter, Russell was his lieutenant. When Felner was promoted to lieutenant, Russell was his captain; when Felner was a captain, Russell was the chief. They worked together for 25 years, and Felner always admired Russell's commitment to the department.

"He brought a lot to the job -- dedication, honesty," Felner said. "He cared about his men. He cared about the town."

Russell, a 1945 graduate of Roger Ludlowe High School and Navy veteran, died Saturday at the age of 85 after a long illness.

"We were the last class of World War II. Very few of the males graduated. We went into the service," Russell recalled at a 2010 reunion of the Ludlowe Class of '45. Russell, who received a wartime diploma, was a U.S. Navy seaman 1st class and assigned to a submarine chaser.

After his military service, Russell joined the Fire Department in 1954, moving up through the ranks until he became chief in 1975. He served as the department's top commander until retiring in 1991.

Felner said Russell was dedicated to improving the department. He started the department's physical fitness program and its scuba diving unit, which performed water rescues and recoveries.

Russell was inspired to start the team partly by the death of his 18-month-old daughter, who drowned in 1962. During a 2005 interview, he spoke about the loss and his horror that, at the time, the only way to recover a body was with a grappling hook. "It's bad enough to lose somebody, let alone to have to retrieve them by grappling hook," he said.

He considered the use of a scuba team a more respectful way to perform those kinds of rescues.

After retiring as fire chief, Russell remained active in his community, volunteering at St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport, and with his church, St. Anthony of Padua on South Pine Creek Road.

St. Vincent's spokeswoman Lucinda Ames said Russell volunteered at the hospital for 17 years and stopped working there only a few months ago.

"He was so tough he would come in even when he wasn't feeling that well," she said. "He would still want to be there to help."

Ames said he helped in a variety of ways, transporting patients, volunteering in the hospital's Short Stay Center and doing whatever was needed. He and his wife donated red wagons to the hospital that new mothers and other patients could use to cart flowers and other gifts to their cars following a stay.

"He was a roving ambassador for the hospital," Ames said. "He brought so much joy to the patients and staff and everybody else. It's a big loss."

A funeral service for Russell will take place at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Anthony of Padua Church, followed by burial with military honors in Oaklawn Cemetery. Calling hours will be Thursday, from 2 to 8 p.m., at the Shaughnessey Banks Funeral Home, 50 Reef Road.

Memorial donations may be made to the Connecticut Burn Center at Bridgeport Hospital, 267 Grant St., Bridgeport, CT 06610 or www.bridgeporthospital.org/burncenter