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Funeral director perpetuates family legacy

| Saturday, July 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

When Mary Beth Rabe Menzler became the first licensed female funeral director in Donora in 1982, she became the third generation of her family affiliated with the 108-year-old James A. Rabe Funeral Home Inc.

The business was founded in 1905 by Menzler's grandfather, James A. Rabe Sr., and was originally located at Sixth Street and Thompson Avenue.

“It was where the St. Dominic Social Center has been housed for many years,” Menzler said. “My grandfather owned and operated a furniture store in the front of the building and the funeral home in the back.”

The elder Rabe, who received his state license as a funeral director in 1906, died in 1944 when Menzler's father, James A. Rabe Jr., was a junior at Donora High School. The business was run under a widow's license by Menzler's grandmother, Anna Eliza Gillingham Rabe, until her father became licensed. It was during this time that the business moved to Eighth Street and Thompson Avenue.

Mrs. Rabe continued to run the business at that site until her son returned from service with the Army's Grave's Registration Unit in Japan during the Korean War. He formed a partnership in 1963 with Richard E. Lawson and the business became the Lawson-Rabe Funeral Home.

Menzler's father, who also operated an ambulance service in Donora for many years, purchased the business in 1975 and moved his family and the funeral home to its present location at Seventh Street and Thompson Avenue. The business was incorporated in 1993.

Menzler, a 1978 graduate of Ringgold High School, attended California University of Pennsylvania and Community College of Allegheny County before graduating from the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science (PMIS) in 1982.

“JoAnn Pavlic and I were the first area women to graduate from the Mortuary Institute and become licensed funeral directors in the Mon Valley,” Menzler said. “My father tried to talk me out of choosing this career, mainly because he didn't think it was something for women. But I was determined to perpetuate the family legacy. Today, many women are owners/operators of funeral homes across the country.”

Pavlic, who was elected president of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association in 2012, is one of those women and is at the helm of the Leonard M. Pavlic Funeral Homes Inc. in Bentleyville and Charleroi. The business was founded by her late father, for whom it is named.

The Pavlic funeral home in Charleroi is located at Third Street and Fallowfield Avenue, and was the site of the Francis C. Slezak Funeral Home for many years. Before Slezak purchased the property in 1943, it was the headquarters for a Pennsylvania State Police substation.

“My father did a lot of embalming work for Mr. Slezak,” Menzler said. “And he and my mother were good friends with Francis and his wife, Marie.”

James A. Rabe Jr. was born May 9, 1927, in Monessen and graduated from Donora High School in 1945. He graduated from the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science and became a licensed funeral director in 1949.

He served as a sergeant with the Army in Korkora, Japan.

Rabe was 78 when he died on Aug. 12, 2005. He is interred at Monongahela Cemetery.

— Ron Paglia