Sue and Floyd Have Retired, But the Parkers Never Do
They had such a deliberate, sensible plan, these two. He worked loyally and long for a leading Fort Smith corporation. She put in the last 10 years at a constantly challenging job at a nonprofit, but one that brought together several of her talents and passions. Soon after marrying in 2003, they carefully began to prepare to retire almost on the same date in 2014. They stuck to that plan to be assured they could stop working and be relatively secure, retired – at leisure.
When she learned she had a (solvable) medical concern, her treatment last year blew their goal of same-day retirement. Even though her last day at work came a little earlier, they still managed to conclude their careers very close together.
Rocking chair, here they come, right? There is just one problem. About five years ago, Sue Robison and Sonny, as many call Floyd, began portraying iconic figures in their hometown’s history. And while the Robisons may retire, the characters of Judge Isaac C. Parker and his wife, Mary, never will. The historical couple is in demand.
Fortunately, it’s something they have both come to love doing. And since Sonny has the “leading role” of their duo, portraying the legendary jurist who presided over the Federal Court of the Western District of Arkansas from 1875-1896, for once he can’t claim Sue made him do it.
Getting involuntarily drafted into Sue’s “army” is something Sonny got accustomed to soon after they met at a Scottish Club event. He once would have described himself as considerably less outgoing than his wife, who absolutely thrives on planning, promoting and participating in community festivals and charitable events. She may have spotted his hidden potential when she found out he would at least wear a kilt.
And while Sonny did not have quite as keen an interest in community projects that were thick on Sue’s resume, they did have a lot in common.
Sue was born in Fort Smith at St. Edward’s hospital, one year and one day after Sonny was born at the same place in 1950. Her family moved to California because their father was in the Navy, but returned here and she attended Fort Smith schools through her graduation from Northside High School in 1969. Sonny had graduated from Southside in 1968. He joined the Navy and served in Vietnam. Both were previously married and have daughters, born one year apart but in the opposite order. Sue’s daughter, Anne, is one year older than Sonny’s daughter, Heather.
He started to work more than 35 years ago at ABF in the rating/traffic department, which then operated on paper and by telephone, but progressed during his career to one of the most highly computerized areas.
She worked in media, first at Channel 5, where covering our active community connected Sue to many nonprofit organizations and institutions she would later associate with. Working in television also suited her live-wire personality and can-do ethic.
“At 5, then, everybody did it all,” she recalled. “I wrote commercial copy, invented promos and contests, did the Santa show, even ran the camera if necessary. I loved video editing. I never worked for a better company than the New York Times, nor have I worked with more caring, creative or exciting people than those I knew at TV5.”
She shifted to print media, working in promotions at the Southwest Times Record until it sold to Stephens Media.
“My big project I’m very proud of there was the 2000 rededication of the National Historic Site,” Sue said. “I worked with Nancy Steel on the special historical publication ‘Insight 2000.’”
When the newspaper changed hands, she was let go along with 13 others in a downsizing. Sue went to the nonprofit sector, working for the Sebastian County Humane Society. Working at a nonprofit agency called for effort above and beyond anything the enthusiastic Sue had ever done. That’s when Sonny really got drafted into her world.
“After that, everything she’s done, I had to volunteer for,”?Sonny said in mock protest.
“I enjoy being involved and I love the public,” Sue said. “I told Sonny when we got together, we can do these things or we can sit on the porch when we’re 85 and say we could have done these things.” She ribbed him that he had to admit they’ve had some good times – or at least, adventures, such as the time she had to ask him to drive an edgy shelter dog to a media interview.
Sonny drove a Doberman he thought “was going to eat my face,” he remembered. At the interview, the bigger dog tried to bite a Chihuahua.
“On the way back, I was now sure he could eat my face!” he said.
Despite that, Sue said he worked patiently with shelter dogs to rehabilitate them so someone would adopt them, even though he’s more of a cat man. The couple naturally wound up with several pets at home, including one guinea pig.
When Sue took a job at Community Services Clearinghouse, her experience around promotions and fundraising became part of her duties. The need for fundraising is constant. The agency fights hunger and operates the Meals for Kids Backpack Program, sending more than 2,000 area students home weekly with weekend food.
Sonny pitched in frequently at Clearinghouse events, standing beside her for one sweaty, 15-hour day at a fundraiser at the Mayor’s Fourth of July celebration, selling concessions. Sue also enlisted his help for the regular work of the Clearinghouse, which includes packing, loading in or shipping out food or helping with holiday gift distribution.
“I don’t have to ask her what I need to do,” he joked. “When she sees something that has to be done, she does it.” He just learned to keep up.
While at Clearinghouse, Sue produced an annual Heritage Festival, a multi-cultural outdoor event held downtown that included Western re-enactors and Parker-era historical figures, wagon rides and a petting zoo. Held primarily for the children served by Clearinghouse, it grew into an event lots of people attended and involved the Museum of History, the Fort Smith Trolley Museum and the Fort Smith Historic Site.
“When we were dealing with the Historic Site, Sue suggested I should volunteer,” Sonny recounted.
“I said you might enjoy it!” Sue said, protesting being called bossy.
Sonny trained with the National Historic Site’s volunteer cannon crew and portrayed both Confederate and Union soldiers in programs. He had grown his snow-white beard and hair longer for the re-enactments and others noticed he resembled the photographs and portraits of the older Isaac Parker. David Dunagin, an attorney who volunteers for re-enactments of federal court trials at Night Court presentations, often portrays Parker as a younger man, Sonny noted.
“I had gotten tired of being killed in a lot of Civil War battles so I promoted myself to judge,” he joked. At the Heritage Festival and in programs at the Fort Smith Museum of History, he began to appear as Parker, simply for atmosphere. Sue joined him as Parker’s wife, Mary.
At first they appeared as the couple only ceremonially, but both were drawn to do research so they could characterize the Parkers correctly.
“I was appearing at a Judge Parker birthday party celebration when two little girls outside spotted me and yelled, ‘There he is!’” Sonny recalled. “I started talking with them. The young kids know a lot more than we give them credit.” The interest of children and responsibility to educate them accurately pushed him to learn to speak more when in character.
Because of kids, “I’ve gotten more outgoing about it,” Sonny said. “I don’t want to embarrass Parker for one thing. For another thing, I don’t want to have to answer to him if I meet him in the afterlife!”
Finding out more about Mary Parker has hooked Sue.“She’s less well-known, but I think I know her now. She was well-educated. I don’t think she fit in very well here as an upper-class person. They had a happy home, a jovial home, raising boys. She was a worker bee. Education was her cause and she taught in a little free school during the Civil War before coming here. She was one of the founders of Fort Smith’s first lending library,” she said. “I think she was raised to feel she had a duty to do service.”
“I also found out she was in charge of a pony race; her boys liked to ride ponies,” she said. Sounds a little like Sue’s own fun-loving ideas.
The Robisons claim they know how to relax. Sonny does some wine-making and woodworking. But for these two, retirement also means more time for volunteering and bringing a historic couple alive to children.