Villa Grove lost a father figure this month, when Robert "Footie" Hancock died.
Hancock died in his home at age 81 on Dec. 18 from a heart attack, after battling cancer since early fall. Hancock was well known in Villa Grove for his remarkable knowledge of town history and for his giving, caring ways.
His longtime friend Stic Matteson said, "Footie was a guy that if you needed help, he would just automatically do it and you could depend on it."
Hancock's daughter Jeri Bragg says some of her earliest memories are of going with him to visit people in nursing homes or picking up shut-ins to take to the doctor's office or other errands. "There's always been someone that he was looking after," she said.
Part of his knowledge of local families came through years of working at the funeral home in town. He started working for Mott's Funeral Home a couple of years after graduating from Villa Grove High School in 1945.
After attending Worsham School of Mortuary Science in 1956 and receiving his funeral director's license, he continued to work in the funeral business until 1969 with the Keith Funeral Home. Hancock then worked for 20 years for the Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad, Missouri Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad as a freight conductor. When Bob Faust opened the Joines Funeral Home in 1978, Hancock returned part-time to help the new owner and return to the work he loved.
"His knowledge was invaluable to me, as far as family history. He had an incredible memory for remembering burial sites," Faust said.
Hancock had also served as a Camargo Township Cemetery trustee president and board member for many years. In 2007, Hancock was honored by the Illinois Funeral Directors Association for 50 years of service.
Bragg said that every time someone died, her father would give her the extensive family history of the deceased and his relatives. "Family and friends were so important to him. He had a general interest in people and their welfare."
Faust also admired Hancock's ability to comfort and guide grieving families. "He could be with a family at the most terrible time of their life and make it tolerable for them," Faust said.
Pastor Nic Showalter of the Villa Grove United Methodist Church worked many funerals with Hancock.
"No matter how low and sad you felt, Footie could always find a way to make you feel better," Showalter said. "I think he was just the perfect combination of a great sense of humor and seriousness and caring for people. He had a way of reaching out to people that was very special. His comforting and nurturing just overflowed."
Hancock was often seen at Villa Grove school sports events and was the homecoming parade grand marshal a couple of years ago. The student council presented him with a new Villa Grove cap, because his had started to fall apart with wear.
Bragg said she was always amazed at the number of graduation invitations and wedding invitations Hancock received from young people in the community.
Hancock was born in West Frankfort, one of 10 children of Pat and Frances Hancock. He spent his early childhood in Salem before the family moved to Villa Grove when he was 10.
Hancock was married for a short time to JoAnn Tyler. They had a daughter, Bragg. Tyler, Bragg and a stepdaughter, Shelley Rairden of Urbana, survive.
Showalter called Hancock a "father figure" to Villa Grove.
"A sense of community comes from knowing each other and with his passing we will all know each other a little less. The threads of our community are a little loosened without him here," Showalter said.
Matteson summed up his old friend.
"You're just a little bit better off yourself for knowing him. It made you just a little bit better individual."