FARMINGTON, Minn. -- Erling Kindem, a World War II veteran whose friendship with Emmett Rychner became an internet sensation, has passed away at the age of 91.

Erling's family says he died Saturday afternoon at a senior care facility in Farmington.

KARE 11 produced a series of stories about Erling and his pre-school neighbor Emmett over the past few years. His gentle demeanor with the little boy next door touched an entire nation.

"They kind of bonded over the tomatoes in his garden," Emmett's mom told KARE 11. "Because Emmett loves tomatoes."

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Seeds planted in a garden bloomed into an unlikely friendship between the then 3-year-old Emmett and 89-year-old Erling.

"Every time he saw me out there he would come running over," Erling told KARE 11, remembering those early visits from the boy next door who would ask, 'Erling, got any 'matoes?'"

Soon Erling and Emmett were racing lawn mowers, Erling on his John Deere garden tractor and Emmett on his battery operated toy riding tractor.

Their friendship continued, reuniting for birthdays and play dates, even after Emmett and his family moved away and Erling moved to a retirement community.