WILLIAMSBURG — Fred Albert Savage's high school friends remember him as a star athlete and a prankster who always was quick to smile.
"He used to run around with my husband; they used to just have all kinds of fun and he was just a joker," said Caryl Stites, who attended the old Williamsburg High School with Savage decades ago.
Students long suspected Savage was behind a Halloween prank that ended with a manure spreader atop the school.
"We always thought it was him, but we were never really sure," said Carol Hockin, a former Whitewater Township clerk who went to school with Savage.
Savage, 74, died Wednesday in a blaze that destroyed his Whitewater Township home. Grand Traverse County Undersheriff Nate Alger said investigators don't believe the fire is suspicious and are working to identify a cause.
“(Savage) was unable to get out for some reason,” Alger said. “This man was visually impaired. To what extent, I don’t know.”
Firefighters arrived shortly after a 3:45 p.m. dispatch call to find Savage's 5143 Hanna Road residence completely engulfed in flames. Savage's family members, neighbors and then firefighters tried to enter the home, but the flames forced them back.
Grand Traverse County Rural Fire Chief Theo Weber said the home's location in a remote, wooded area presented challenges for personnel from six responding fire stations from Grand Traverse, Antrim and Kalkaska counties.
"There were very narrow roadways, unplowed roadways, steep inclines, icy roads, all of the above," he said. "It was very difficult to gain access to the structure."
Weber said at one point a fire engine slid off the narrow trail and became stuck in a snowy ditch. Firefighters eventually shifted to smaller gear and knocked down flames by about 10:30 p.m., when rescue crews were able to recover Savage's body.
Medical examiner Matthew Houghton said Savage died from "accidental asphyxiation due to products of combustion."
He said Savage sustained injuries from the fire and a fall from when a floor gave way beneath him.
Savage lived in the house with four other residents – his daughter, son-in-law and two renters – all of whom left the house by 2:30 p.m., about an hour before the fire started.
Savage lost his vision in his later years but never failed to show up at the voting polls, said Hockin, who helped Savage fill out election forms.
Before he lost his sight, Savage was an active participant in the close-knit Williamsburg community.
"He was full of life and he'd help anybody that would need help," said Stites, who remembered Savage helped build her roof, but somehow fell through and tumbled into the living room.