Franklin restaurateur and icon, Fred Rabil, dies
Published 10:43 am Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Those close to Fred Rabil would say that he is Franklin, Virginia.
“If you compile a list of well-known people from Franklin, Fred would be at or among the top of the list,” said Clyde Parker, a long-time friend of Rabil’s. “Anything that happened in the city — be it good or bad; the hurricane, the flood or the mill closing — Fred was always there.”
Born on Christmas Day, 1917, unto parents who emigrated from Lebanon to the United States a few years prior, Rabil lived a modest childhood. His father owned a small convenience store in Weldon, North Carolina, making it difficult to care for Fred and his nine siblings. Rabil was the second eldest child, but lost his older brother in 1918 to infantile paralysis at the age of three.
Fred and a few of his siblings would often travel by train to Franklin to visit their two uncles; one owned a bakery, and the other a candy shop. Times were tough during the Great Depression, and this helped alleviate some of the struggles associated with the task of raising nine children.
Although his parents spoke broken English, Rabil was quite proficient. At the age of 7, he was paid to read the subtitles of silent movies.
At 14-years-old, though, Rabil dropped out of school and traveled the country in search of work so that his family no longer had to care for him. He and a buddy hopped on a train heading west from Weldon, and made their first stop at the Hoover Dam.
“They told him that he had to be careful of two things…” said Fred’s son, Frank, “Rock slides and rattlesnakes.
“He could handle the rock slides, just not the rattlesnakes.”
From there, Rabil traveled to Southern California with the hope of finding work on a merchant ship heading to Hawaii. Shortly after he arrived, however, the area was hit with a 6.3-magnitude earthquake, and many job opportunities disappeared. Fred would find work, though, knocking down unstable chimneys caused by the earthquake’s tremors.
Proud of the fact that he visited all 50 states and his ability to recite them and their capitals by heart, Rabil continued to wander the country in search of a stable income. He searched as far north as Minnesota, where he caught frostbite in his fingers, and as far south as Mexico, where his olive-complected skin became so tanned that he almost wasn’t allowed back into the United States.
“They wouldn’t let him back into the country because he got so dark,” Frank said, noting that his father’s English was the only thing that convinced the border patrol to let him back into the states.
Rabil would ride the rails for several years, hoping to find work that paid him enough pennies to buy a meal. Eventually, he returned to Weldon to finish school and open a service station with one of his brothers.
It wasn’t until Fred’s uncle, Henry Hawa, encouraged him to move to Franklin in 1945 that Rabil knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. Hawa — Fred’s mother’s brother — owned a bakery on South Main Street, and his brother, John, owned a sweets shop across the street.
Henry had the expectation that he could teach Fred everything he knew about running a business, so that one day Rabil could inherit the bakery and he could move to Miami.
Fred met his first wife, Polly, a nurse at Raiford Memorial Hospital, soon after he returned to Western Tidewater. The two quickly wed and lived in the apartment above the bakery, even after they took over the business in 1950.
The couple transformed the Franklin Bakery into the Franklin Arcade, a convenience store that sold beer, sandwiches and tobacco products, and featured a juke box and several pinball machines. There was also a billiards parlor next door.
Business was booming, and the Franklin Arcade gained some employees when sons Frank, David and John were born in the early 1950s. All five members of the family would live upstairs until 1962, when they moved into a home on 2nd Street.
“It was a unique experience that not many people get to experience,” Frank said of the living arrangement. “It involved us kids washing dishes, oiling the floor every Saturday, being a short order cook and counting change.
“Only the Rabils could handle the cash register,” he joked.
The kids were in it for the money to buy a ticket to the local movie theater, but Fred knew he needed all of the help he could get. The arcade was remodeled and turned into a cafeteria style restaurant, with a pool hall and an upstairs office, and Fred’s would serve roughly 200-300 hot dogs per day.
“He would have hot dogs all the way up his arms, asking people what they wanted on it,” said David, the current owner of the restaurant. “One Christmas Eve, he sold probably 500 to 600.”
The children were involved in many activities outside the restaurant, too. They played baseball, basketball, football and traveled the state, and Fred was always involved.
“He was always working, but he did whatever he could to not miss any games,” John said. “I don’t remember him missing any.”
With his heavy work schedule, often 12-hour days, Fred wasn’t afforded the opportunities to coach his sons.
“There’s no such thing as an eight-hour work day,” David remembers his father saying, “but he encouraged us to participate, and he said ‘If you’re going to do it, then do it right.’”
“He wouldn’t let us quit or complain, either. He never complained about anything and didn’t understand when people did.”
The restaurant was closed on Sundays, and on his lone off day, Fred would pack his family in the old station wagon for day trips. They also went to the 1964 and 1965 New York World’s Fair, several baseball games in Washington, D.C., and to their grandparents’ house in North Carolina.
Spending time with his family was always most important to Fred, and the trips were routine until Polly’s death in 1976. More tragedy stuck, too, when a fire destroyed the pool room and some of the upstairs office space less than a year later.
“He just handled it,” David said of his father. “He said there was no need to cry and just got back on the horse.”
The same could be said of his reaction when a fire damaged the kitchen in 1984, or when Hurricane Floyd flooded downtown Franklin in 1999.
“It was terrible, the water stayed for seven days and it was up to here,” Frank said, pointing about five feet high on the restaurant’s brick wall. “It was completely gutted, but there was never a doubt in his mind that the restaurant wouldn’t be back… and that gave people hope.”
Eight months later, Fred’s was back open for business, and featured a landscaped dining terrace and bar top made from the restaurant’s original signage. To this day, customers still autograph the sign to leave their mark on the restaurant that has served the community for over 70 years.
Of those years, Rabil rarely — if ever — missed a day of work. He had a great work ethic, and as long as he wasn’t out of town or too sick to work, he was in the restaurant, 8 a.m. to close.
“Nothing made him happier than someone walking through that door,” David said. “I think that’s why he lived to be 97-years-old.”
Rabil was more than just an owner of a local restaurant, though, and his sons claim that he did a lot of things that people couldn’t see.
“He was the ‘Bank of Fred,’” Frank said. “Many of his customers were employees of the mill and he would cash their checks. He also kept a green book for money, and he often extended a line of credit for anybody who couldn’t pay for their meal.
“He was a very giving man, with no strings attached. He didn’t want or seek attention; he was almost embarrassed.”
That’s just the kind of man that Fred Rabil was.
His sons recalled an older woman who would visit Fred’s twice daily for a cup of day-old coffee. She passed away on Saturday.
“He just wanted to get up there before her so he could have her coffee waiting,” David said.
Fred Rabil passed away on Friday, March 20, the first day of spring. He was predeceased by his wife and mother of his three sons, Pauline “Polly” Vaughan Rabil, and by a brother, Joe, and sister Lucille. He is survived by his wife, Joyce, whom he married in the late 1980s; three sons and daughters-in-law, Frank and Lynne Rabil, John and Beverly Rabil and David and Patricia Rabil; grandchildren, John and Christy Rabil, Marshall Rabil, Vaughan and Jim Keeney, Susan and Matt Longley, David Rabil and fiancee Caitlin Friel and Jessica Rabil; and two great-granddaughters, Hunter and Hannah Longley. He is also survived by his brothers, Mitchell, William, Ernie and Leo; sisters, Marguerite and Helen; and their families.
The memorial service was on Tuesday, March 24, in Southampton Memorial Park, and Fred’s Restaurant hosted a reception following the service. The family suggests that in lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Franklin Rescue Squad or the St. Jude Catholic Church Building Fund.