Streator funeral director celebrates 50 years on the job

Joe Rabbitt looks forward to semi retirement from Solon-Telford Funeral Home

Joe Rabbitt, funeral director at Solon-Telford Funeral Home in Streator, will celebrate 50 years on the job Wednesday, May 22, 2024.

To most people, taking a break doesn’t involve building a cattle fence on a farm, or raising a litter of yellow Labrador puppies, but to funeral director Joe Rabbitt it’s part of his semi-retirement plans.

Wednesday the always-busy Rabbitt will celebrate what’s been 50 years in the funeral business.

Rabbitt, who now works at Solon-Telford Funeral Home, grew up in Streator across the street from Hagi Funeral Home on High Street, where he’d pick up odd jobs washing cars and mowing lawns. He graduated Streator High School, attended Illinois Valley Community College, then graduated the Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Wheeling to become a funeral director.

In total, he’s spent more than a decade as a funeral director in Streator, working at Hagi Funeral Home from 2002 to 2015, moving to Bloomington-Normal for nine months, then returning in 2016 to Solon-Telford Funeral Home. He left Streator in 1975 and worked for 27 years as a funeral director in a number of Illinois communities along the way including the Quad Cities, Crystal Lake, Rochelle and Lincoln.

“After growing up here, I know a lot of people, and I’m able to help people through a difficult situation,” Rabbitt said. “I try to make things a little better for them.”

“Eight years ago, I had the opportunity to work for Jason and Dolly (Telford) and it’s worked out better than anticipated.”

Jason Telford said when he heard Rabbitt was making his way to Bloomington, he was hopeful he would return and join his team. Rabbitt had made a visit to Jason Telford once to let him know how it was going there, then came another visit.

“The visits were becoming more frequent, and I could tell he wanted to come back,” Jason Telford said. “We were able to work something out and it’s been great having him.”

Rabbitt has experience running his own funeral home, so he doesn’t need a lot of direction. Having an agricultural background, he’s also the type of person who likes to stay busy.

The business involves being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Directors are never sure when a call will come that a family’s loved one has passed.

“When that call comes, whatever you are doing, you have to go,” Rabbitt said. “After 50 years, it starts to take its toll.”

There is another aspect of the funeral business, however, and that is when there are no calls. Rabbitt hardly takes it easy during this time, utilizing it to mow the lawn, wash cars, complete handy projects around the funeral home, or any number of tasks that keep the operation tidy.

“We’ve been blessed to have him here,” Telford said. “I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as he does. He goes and goes and goes, and gets more accomplished in a day than some in weeks.

“He knows the funeral home business. He always knows what to do. I’ve never had to tell him what to do. Even when we’re not busy, he always finds something to do.”

Making Rabbitt’s accomplishment of five decades on the job even more remarkable is that he also worked as a drywall finisher for half of that time, even pitching his own wall in the office when it was needed.

Telford said the hardworking Rabbitt deserves some time to relax and unwind, something he’s going to continue to remind Rabbitt during the semi-retirement. Rabbitt still plans to help the funeral home, much less sporadically, he said.

“Fifty years is an unbelievable accomplishment, especially when you consider he was a first generation in the business,” Telford said, acknowledging he to entered the business as a first generation funeral director. “He’s been an invaluable visionary and a professional. You couldn’t ask for anything more. I want him to enjoy his retirement. He’ll always be a valued member of our family and I wish him all the best.”

Rabbitt said much has changed in the funeral home business. When he first started, many of the funeral homes doubled as ambulance services. He also said the trend is for more people to get cremated, than be buried, and visitations and funerals are becoming more consolidated services, often taking place in one day.

Rabbitt is looking forward to spending time with his companion Cindy Hart and spending time with her two grandchildren, and “taking them fishing.” He and Hart live in a cabin along the Vermilion River.

He said he’ll miss most helping families in their time of need, but he won’t miss staying busy.

There’s puppies to raise. Farming to tackle. And grandchildren on the go.

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