PRAGUE, Czech Republic (CNN) -- Vaclav Havel, the shy but iron-willed Czech writer endowed with a playful sense of humor and a powerful moral compass, is to be buried Friday, with world leaders and ordinary people gathering at Prague Castle to say final farewells.
The former Czech president who helped bring down his country's Communist regime died Sunday at the age of 75.
Thousands of Czechs waited for hours in freezing weather in the early winter night before the funeral to pay their last respects, holding flowers, candles and notes to lay by his coffin. Many of the messages, from those handwritten by schoolchildren to those printed off computers, bore the same words: "Thank you, Mr. President."
Alena Sturmova, who came with her husband and son, remembers being at Prague Castle when Havel was elected the first post-Communist president of her country, almost 22 years ago to the day.
Seeing him there on a balcony, instead of the Soviet-backed authorities who had governed her country her entire life, meant something special to her, she said: "Maybe the possibility of freedom." Her husband, Daniel, called Havel "a symbol of the Velvet Revolution," when Czechs and Slovaks overthrew an ossified regime by pouring into Prague's Wenceslas Square and jingling their key rings as a signal to their leaders to go home.
Havel was a symbol of that revolution, Daniel Sturm said by way of explaining why he and his family were waiting to lay flowers by Havel's coffin.
"We just wanted to come here and tell him thank you," he said, before pausing and continuing: "... for the last time."
Havel, a chain-smoking, rock-loving intellectual, became one of the world's most famous dissidents in the 1970s for his public writings against Eastern Europe's Communist regimes.
He was jailed for about four and a half years over essays such as "The Power of the Powerless," which urged people to simply stop pretending to believe the lies their government fed them and act on what they knew to be true.
"Truth and love must triumph over lies and hatred," Havel insisted.
With the Soviet Union saying it would no longer intervene in the affairs of its satellites, and Communist regimes crumbling in Poland and East Germany in 1989, Czechs and Slovaks rose up in answer to the call of Havel and other dissidents around him.
In a matter of days, the authorities resigned and a parliament stuffed full of Communist party functionaries elected Havel president of Czechoslovakia. He served as head of state until politicians decided to divide the country in two in 1992, then went on to be elected president of the Czech Republic twice.
His country joined NATO and the European Union under his stewardship, but he lost out on many of the major domestic political battles of his presidency, including his effort to keep Czechoslovakia together.
Though regularly in poor health because of his smoking and imprisonment, Havel continued to campaign for causes that were important to him, with political freedom in Cuba and China being among those closest to his heart.