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Obituary of Richard J. Rabbitt Sr.: Former Missouri House speaker

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 13, 2011 - Richard J. Rabbitt Sr., who was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives in 1960 at the age of 25 and was the powerful Democratic speaker of the House by the time he was 37, died Friday (Dec. 9, 2011) of heart failure at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. He was 76 and lived in Des Peres. He had lived the first 50 years of his life in St. Louis's Central West End.

In 1977, after resigning from the House a year earlier to run for lieutenant governor, Mr. Rabbitt, an attorney, was convicted on charges of corruption.

Mr. Rabbitt maintained his innocence but was only partially successful in a 1978 appeal. He served a brief period in prison and lost his law license.

"I'd never been in trouble before, and I've never been in trouble since," Mr. Rabbitt told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1996. "I lost my license for 18 years. I'd like to be a full-fledged member of the bar again." Mr. Rabbitt got his wish and returned to practicing law into retirement.

"He recovered from a bump in the road and used his license to help people who couldn't afford to pay," said Kenneth J. Rothman, who succeeded Mr. Rabbitt as House speaker and later became lieutenant governor. "No one's perfect, but he was an effective legislator who did a lot of good things," Rothman added.

A Powerful Legislator

Richard John Rabbitt was born Oct. 30, 1935, in St. Louis, the son of Peter and Marie Rabbitt. He graduated from Christian Brothers College High School and earned a B.S. in political science from Saint Louis University and his law degree from Saint Louis University School of Law.

Mr. Rabbitt began his law career in practice with his brother, Peter, but soon turned to politics. He served eight terms in the Missouri House of Representatives. Mr. Rabbitt served three terms as majority floor leader from 1967 until 1972, when he became speaker of the House. During two terms as speaker, Mr. Rabbitt presided over the house-assembly, appointed all the members and chairs of all committees and assigned all bills to committees.

His tenure as speaker included serving as a member of the National Legislative Leaders Conference from 1967 to 1975, and signing into law the Missouri Nursing Practice Act, which amended the state's nursing regulations to cover licensed practical nurses. The act was signed into law in 1976 after Mr. Rabbitt was successful in getting Gov. Christopher "Kit" Bond's veto overridden, a feat that had not happened for a century in Missouri. "He knew how to mix it up; he could play hardball," Rothman said. "He knew how to move bills."

He was instrumental in moving the Equal Rights Amendment through the Missouri House where it was ratified 82-75 on Feb. 7, 1975.

The ERA had been winding its way through legislatures since 1923, passing both houses of Congress in 1972. It failed to gain ratification by all states by the June 30, 1982, deadline, but it was not due to a lack of effort on Mr. Rabbitt's part.

"He was always very supportive of equality, including women's rights," said his son Richard. "My father was proud to be a part of and to contribute towards a new era of greater equality and he instilled a strong sense of social justice and desire for equal rights in his children."

The same year that he pushed through the Nursing Act, Mr. Rabbitt outmaneuvered some House Republicans by getting them to oppose a resolution they would normally have supported: recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. The resolution gave the speaker the authority to choose when the Pledge would be said; Mr. Rabbitt chose daily. To their political detriment, a number of Republicans voted against the resolution, accusing Mr. Rabbitt of merely attempting to "curry favor" with certain groups as he prepared to run for lieutenant governor.

Mr. Rabbitt did run for Missouri lieutenant governor, but lost that race, suffering a political defeat for the first time in 16 years.

In 1980, Mr. Rabbitt was paroled from federal prison in Lexington, Ky., after serving less than two years of a seven-year sentence for mail fraud and attempted extortion for his dealings with automobile dealers and the Missouri Bus and Truck Association.

He was hired in 1981 by the St. Louis Housing Authority, where he began as supervisor of warehouse operations and was later promoted to deputy executive director, administering Section 8 vouchers for federal rent assistance. Mr. Rabbitt was asked to resign from the Housing Authority in 1992, reportedly for "policy differences" with the agency's new director. He later went to work as a paralegal in the law department of Unigroup, the parent company of United Van Lines.

Recognition And Devotion

In addition to returning to work in the private sector, Mr. Rabbitt continued his personal commitment to charity.

He helped secure funding for the establishment of the Japanese Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden and served on the board of directors of the St. Louis Symphony.

He was a grand knight of the Knights of Columbus; and he received the 1973 Distinguished Service Citation from the Optimist Club West, St. Louis and the Spirit of Life award from the City of Hope in 1975, a pilot medical center. He gave more than six decades of service to two churches: St. Louis Cathedral Catholic Church and St. Gerard Magella Catholic Church.

The only time Rothman said he became angry with his longtime friend was when he married the former Teresa Marie Molloy who was originally from County Galway, Ireland.

"Teresa had been in my district and he took a vote from me," Rothman laughed. "Her sister moved, too, so he took two votes."

"He was," Rothman said, "very devoted to his wife and family."

Mr. Rabbitt was preceded in death by his parents and a brother and sister, John and Jean ("Bunny"). In addition to his wife of 49 years, Mr. Rabbitt's survivors include three sons, Michael (Sarah) Rabbitt of Chicago, Richard (Marcela) Rabbitt of San Francisco and Daniel Rabbitt of Morrisville, N.C.; three daughters, Maureen (Manish) Rabbitt of Menlo Park, Calif., Sheila Rabbitt of Des Peres and Terese Rabbitt of Atlanta. He is also survived by his brother, Peter (Maxine) Rabbitt of Shrewsbury, and three grandchildren.

Visitation will be from 4 to 8 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 13, at Bopp Chapel, 10610 Manchester Road, Kirkwood. A funeral mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m., Wednesday, Dec. 14, at St. Gerard Magella Catholic Church, 1969 Dougherty Ferry Road, Kirkwood.

In lieu of flowers, memorials in Mr. Rabbitt's name may be made to the American Heart Association or the American Diabetes Association.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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