On Jan. 31, I attended the funeral for a longtime friend Roger O'Leary Rebout, who also happens to be my husband's first cousin.
I met Roger in 1979 before I knew my husband. Roger was already a successful farmer by then. During my 34-year career in journalism, Roger became one of my top news sources. If I needed his reaction to a new farm bill or I wanted to find out how crops were faring in his part of the state during a drought, or I wanted to know his thoughts on historically low milk prices and what impact that was having on Wisconsin farmers, I could pick up the phone and give him a call. Over the years, my conversations with Roger helped me keep my finger on the pulse of agriculture in Wisconsin.
I also visited him on his farm several times to do feature stories on the Rebouts and their farm. Talking to Roger in his living room or office or in the field or barn, it was easy to tell that he knew a lot about farming and about business. If he was thinking about buying a new piece of machinery, he needed to know what the payback time would be on that machinery before he was ready to pull the trigger and buy it. He used meticulously detailed farm records to help him make the decision. He did the same thing when he was trying to make up his mind about buying more land.
No matter how busy he was, Roger always took time out of his day to talk to people and answer questions. He was an uncommon man who was really very common.
The son of Isaac and Charlotte Rebout, Roger was born Oct. 1, 1940. He grew up on a dairy farm just west of Janesville with his two sisters and two brothers. He graduated from Janesville High School in 1959 and from University of Wisconsin Farm and Industry Short Course in 1960. In 1962, Roger married Mary Joan Connell and as Roger liked to say, "We set out to conquer the world together."
They literally started with little more than a dream. In 1963, the young couple began milking 40 cows and farming 230 acres on halves within four miles of where they both grew up. They purchased their dairy farm in 1967. Today, Roger Rebout and Sons own 4,000 acres and milk 150 cows. The farm is operated by Roger and Mary Joan's sons Dan, Dave and Doug and three grandsons.
Early in his farming career, Roger became active in young farmers programs. He served 14 years on the board of the Associated Milk Producers Inc. and served many years on retired U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl's advisory committee. A friend and advisor on farm issues to the late Les Aspin, former congressman and defense secretary, Roger capped his years of service with six years on the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board serving his final year as chairman in 2000. He also was a member of the agriculture committee for State Sen. Peter Barca.
Locally, Roger was active on the Rock County Dairy Promotion Board and the Rock County Farm Bureau Board. The Rebouts hosted the first Rock County Dairy Breakfast at their farm and opened their farm to hundreds of visitors over the years. He was president and trustee of his church's parish council and was township board chairman and supervisor for many years.
His efforts didn't go unrewarded. In 1997, Roger was presented the Richard E. Lyng Award for his dedication and service to dairy promotion. In 2003, he became the first person inducted into the Rock County Ag Hall of Fame and in 2006 he received the Master Agriculturist Award from the Wisconsin Agriculturist magazine. I always thought that was quite special since Roger's grandfather John F. O'Leary won the Master Farmer Award from the Wisconsin Agriculturist magazine in 1934 making them the only grandfather and grandson to both win the award.
In 1997, Roger was diagnosed with cancer. Three years later, he learned the cancer had spread to his bones. While the disease most days forced him from the tractor seat into the recliner, I can't remember Roger complaining about his illness, the pain he endured or all the pills he had to take. Despite not having the gift of longevity, Roger managed to pack a lot of living into his 72 years of life.
In addition to Mary Joan, Roger is survived by three sons and two daughters, 15 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, his four siblings and many nieces and nephews. His life's passions were his faith, his family, farming and his friends. More than 600 friends and family members paid their respects at his visitation and funeral. Roger leaves behind a lasting legacy of a life well lived. Well done, my friend. Well done.