SMITH PARK — His funeral home buried Al Capone, but Louis Rago is just as famous to his neighbors for plowing the sidewalks.
Rago is the third-generation funeral director at Rago Brothers Funeral Home, the oldest in Chicago. For the last 10 years, he’s plowed the sidewalks of Smith Park, earning him the neighborhood title of “Smith Park Snow Angel.”
In the beginning, most of the residents in Smith Park had no idea who was clearing their sidewalks, but over the years the secret got out.
“He puts on his heavy coat and jumps on the snowplow and makes his rounds,” said Kathy Smith, board director for the Smith Park Neighborhood Alliance. “I haven’t heard of that happening anywhere else.”
Rago, 67, has a thick head of white hair that pops against his tanned, olive-colored face. And he constantly laughs in between telling you he’s the luckiest guy in the world.
“No one loves life more than Louie Rago because I see death every day,” he said.
Started by his grandfather, also called Louis, and his great-uncle John, the chapel at 624 N. Western Ave. opened in 1917.
And the place lives up to its history. After Capone died in Florida 1947, Louis and John Rago drove down and brought his body back to Chicago for a small ceremony and burial at Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery.
While Rago Brothers does more business at the Norridge Park location it opened in 1990, Louis Rago still resides above the Western Avenue chapel in the same apartment where his grandfather once lived.
There is no answering machine at Rago Brothers. The phone is set up to ring at several different locations — including Rago’s apartment above the funeral home — until someone picks up.
When someone’s just lost a loved one, Rago said, the last thing they want to hear is a voicemail.
Being there for others was just one of the lessons Rago learned from his father, Joe Rago, who passed away and left Lou Rago to run the family business during his sophomore year of college.
During Joe Rago’s time, funeral homes were different places, his son said. Wakes sometimes lasted three days. Many people didn’t have cars, so for a buck, the director would give you a limo ride to the funeral.
But, Rago said, the goal was the same — to help people get through one of the hardest moments of their lives.
As a kid, Lou Rago said he remembers summer wakes when the bodies would smell so bad that there were “smelling salts in every drawer.”
“And I’d say to my dad, ‘Dad, whaddya we doing here?’ And he said, ‘You know Louis, it’s a natural process, and these people have to come to grips,’ ” Rago said.
Now, his son, Joseph L., has been a funeral director at Rago Brothers for 17 years. Over the years, Joseph said he’s watched his father guide countless families through the grieving process.
“Our dad helps people at a terrible times in their lives. He always says ‘Leave it to Louie,’ and he really means it,” he said.
That need to help others is what made Lou Rago break out his snowplow more than 10 years ago. What started out as a one-time assist to a priest shoveling snow at Holy Rosary church ended with Rago taking his plow all the way around the Smith Park neighborhood.
“I used to walk all of these streets when I was a kid, and I know a lot of the people, so I don’t want these guys shoveling snow,” he said.
In addition to helping the community during snowy times, Rago is also president of the Italian American Human Relations Foundation.
Connecting socially, he said, is the way he gets through his daily dealings with the dead.
"Again, a lesson from my father," Lou Rago said. "That's somebody's mother or father, sister or brother, son or daughter that's laying there now. You may go through a whole day not thinking of your mortality. I see my mortality every day."