Sonny Robinson is a gentle man who’s done a back-breaking job the past 5o years at T.J. Fannon & Sons Heating and Cooling on Duke Street. Over that time, he’s worked 15,000 days of hard labor and made roughly 75,000 sales calls, hauling coal and oil to heat area homes.
At the ripe age of 70, Robinson said he has no plans to retire.
“I’ve worked here since I was 19,” he says, a warm smile crossing his face. “I tried retiring a few years ago but came back a few weeks later and got back to work. I got just bored sitting at home.”
Robinson was born Sept. 15, 1937 at Alexandria Hospital and grew up on Oronoco Street. He attended Lyles Crouch Elementary School and during segregated times was bused to Manassas to attend Luther Jackson High School, where he graduated in 1957.
After school most afternoons Robinson worked as a delivery boy at the old Sunlight Market off Duke Street, but was prone to crossing the street to hang around the big coal trucks at Fannon Heating and Oil. In 1956, T.J. Fannon hired Robinson. He never left.
That is, other than a short stint in the Air Force Reserves with the 113th Maintenance Squadron at Bolling Air Force Base, and brief time off to marry his high school sweetheart back in 1957, Marie Robinson. He is currently married to Judy Ann Robinson.
“My first job here was bagging coal,” Robinson recalled. He went on to learn a whole lot more, such as how to pull apart and fully repair old oil burners, heat pumps, air conditioning units and condensing gas furnaces.
“Back then Alexandria was a regular small town and Fannon was the biggest concern here,” he said. “There were only two ways to heat your house, coal or wood.”
The locomotives would pull into the old silos at Duke and S. Henry Street, pulling tons of coal behind them.
Robinson drove a delivery truck to Alexandria households, which was hot and dirty work. The coal silos came down in 1989.
Later, Robinson drove a 1000-gallon fuel trucks to homes, running nighttime deliveries in the snow, sleet and pounding rain. “Back then there weren’t any blacks driving fuel trucks,” Robinson said. He was proud of his work, and was promoted through the ranks from Mechanic’s Helper to Mechanic to Technician.
Robinson is proud of the fact that over five decades of driving and millions of miles criss-crossing Northern Virginia with coal and oil deliveries, he’s had only two minor fender-benders
“The employees are like our kids; weve always felt a strong duty to take care of them,” said Tom Fannon, Jr., “and Sonny’s been one of our best.”
Back in the 1950s, Alexandria was like a small southern town for the working class, with an average household income of $6,200. The hourly wage was $1.45, and a nice new home could be had for between $10,000 and $50,000. The population stood at 37,000.
In 1952, one of the elder Fannons loaned Sonny $12,000 to buy a two-story framed house on Braddock Road on an acre and a quarter. He’s lived in the same house for 45 years, raising five children. He’s attended the same church, Clark’s Baptist, also for 50 years. “I have simple needs and a routine I don’t like to change,” said Robinson, who drives an old Dodge truck with 100,000 miles on it.
Every day at noon, Robinson would drop by the Dixie Pig in Old Town for a 20-cent hot dog or a pulled pork sandwich, then be on his way for coal drops in Mount Vernon, Annandale or Fairfax. He would make calls to the Mount Vernon home of Sonny Jurgenson, or to the McLean estate of Robert F. Kennedy. “My customers have always been happy to see me,” Robinson said.