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Robinson spent life as Fontana firefighter

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February 25, 2014 | 04:44 PM
FONTANA — For 50 years, Merle Robinson was the face of the Fontana Fire Department.

In 1930, he joined, and 10 years later he began his 40 years as fire chief.

His daughter, Marilyn Anderson said her dad had always wanted to be a firefighter.

“It said in his (high school) yearbook that he wanted to be a fire chief,” Anderson said. “It was just something he always wanted to do.”

Because of his dedication to the profession, Fontana’s public safety building, which houses the police and fire departments, bears Robinson’s name above the Third Avenue garage bays.

“It was quite an honor when we heard they wanted to dedicate the building to him,” Anderson said. “The village board must have decided to do that, I don’t know.”

It was dedicated in 1980, and Robinson died in 1988. In 1980, Robinson was also selected as one of Walworth County’s Outstanding Senior Citizens.

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The Robinsons owned a gas station in Fontana, and Anderson said she got used to tending the station.

“When he had to go on a call, one of us kids would take over at the gas station,” Anderson said. “It happened a lot, but that’s all we knew.”

But Robinson still made it home for dinner every night.

“He was there, but we also knew he was constantly busy with things,” Anderson said. “I think whenever he sat down, he probably fell asleep.”

It was Anderson’s mom that did the “hollering” at the kids, not her dad.

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Art, Anderson’s husband, said Robinson never raised his voice.

“I don’t think he ever really got angry even,” Art said. “He didn’t yell at anyone.”

Anderson flipped through a scrapbook of black and white photos of her dad at different honorary functions.

“These are all people that don’t live in the village anymore,” she said. “A lot of them are probably dead, actually. Most of them are gone now.”

Anderson said she and her family just lived with the worry about her dad’s job.

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“Of course we worried, but we couldn’t do anything,” she said. “It was just there. He was going to do what he wanted to do.”

Anderson said her dad was part of lighting the village fireworks before they began contracting with a pyrotechnic company.

“The last year they did the fireworks themselves, it was about 1970 or so, there was some sort of accident,” she said. “I remember the ambulances streaming past. That was the last time the village did them. They started getting some professionals to do it.”

The life of a firefighter

Robinson was born in 1907, in Fontana.

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“He left for Chicago for a few years, I think for a job,” Anderson said. “He returned to Fontana at 22 to help raise his siblings.”

In 1930, at 23, Robinson joined the Fontana Fire Department, and at 33 he became chief.

While chief, he created the rescue squad, which was absorbed by the fire department in 2013.

He was on or led several firefighter-based organizations: President of the Walworth County Firemen’s Association and of the Walworth County Redi Association; and member of Southern Wisconsin Northern Illinois Firemen’s Association, Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs Association, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the National Fire Protection Association and the Volunteer Firemen’s Association.

“He always lived in Fontana,” Anderson said. “He never wanted to leave. Later in his life, he suffered from dementia. That happens. It was hard.”

Anderson said her dad often didn’t recognize his own children during this period.

“It wasn’t a happy time, of course, but we dealt with it the best we could,” she said.


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