Sonny and Sue Robison are masters at leading double lives. The two have become synonymous for their portrayals of Fort Smith legendary Federal Judge Isaac Parker and his wife Mary, appearing at functions throughout the year to promote local history and share the couple's unique story.
What began as an appreciation for history has evolved into a sort of post-retirement career for the Robisons, who spend many of their evenings and weekends in 1800s attire to educate locals and visitors about the Parker pair and the role they played in the development of the city.
It began nearly eight years ago when Sonny volunteered to help with a local Civil War reenactment. Through his involvement at the Fort Smith National Historic Site, he began to learn about the many opportunities available for promoting history, including night court where volunteers reenacted cases from Parker's day.
"It wasn't long after I started helping out that someone mentioned that I looked a lot like the Judge," said Sonny. "Soon after, I dressed up as him for the museum's (Fort Smith Museum of History) Judge Parker Birthday Party. The next year, Sue joined me as his wife, Mary.”
From there, the two began making more and more appearances, helping at everything from museum presentations, to walking tours and special events. Over time, the two expanded their volunteering to include functions at the Museum of History, the National Historic Site, the Clayton House, the Fort Smith Trolley Museum, and many other local heritage events and festivals.
GETTING TO KNOW THE PARKERS
Portraying Judge and Mrs. Parker entails more than simply donning a period costume and shaking hands in public. Sue and Sonny take their roles seriously and spend countless hours researching who the Parkers were, including their work, family life, community involvement, and general character traits.
"When we present to a group or talk about the Parkers, we want to be sure that we are giving them a true representation of who they were and being as accurate as possible," said Sonny. "It is important to us that we get it right.”
The two use books, papers, old clippings , and more to learn about the Parkers. They also collaborate with local historians and Fort Smith heritage enthusiasts to gather as information as they can.
"One of the wonderful things about Fort Smith is how people are willing to share what they know," said Sue. "There are several people out there who are pros at researching the Parkers and other prominent people from that time and they freely share their research and the facts they gather.”
Fondly referred to as the Judge and Mary, Sue and Sonny talk about the historic Parker couple as if they knew them well. Stories about their lives in old Fort Smith flow naturally, as they give insight into the Parkers' lives and destroy myths about Fort Smith's most famous judge.
"They were actually very progressive … way ahead of their time in many ways," said Sue. "Mary employed many women who were African-American or German in her home, which was not popular during that time. She also was very active in the community, championing many causes.”
Serving as the first president of The Fortnightly Club, Mary Parker helped lead the way in raising funds for the city's first library, which opened in 1889 at Belle Grove School with 1,100 books. By 1902, the library was the largest in the state.
Judge Parker was also very different from his rough and tumble reputation as the "Hanging Judge." As a Congressman, he sponsored legislation that would have allowed women the right to vote and hold public office in United States territories long before women achieved suffrage. He was aN advocate for the rights of the Indian nations. He helped establish Fort Smith Public Schools, serving as a board of education member and helping to secure land and funding for buildings. He and his wife also chose to send their two boys to public school, in a time when the wealthy generally chose private school or tutors for educating their children.
And contrary to his nickname, Parker was actually opposed to the capital punishment and was in favor of the abolition of the death penalty.
"No matter what some may hear, the Judge actually never attended any of the executions," said Sonny. "What we have found is that he appeared to have spent days when executions were scheduled at his home. Even if he was in his office or chambers, they were situated in a part of the building where it would have been impossible for him to have a view of gallows.”
Although the Robisons have portrayed the Parkers for several years, their hobby transitioned into more of a full-time gig this year. The two officially retired from their "regular" jobs on Feb. 28, freeing up more time to devote to their passion for history. Sonny worked for 35 1/2 years in the overcharges and pricing department at ABF Freight System. Sue spent the last decade serving at the Community Services Clearinghouse in Fort Smith, following long stints in media at the Times Record and KFSM-Channel 5.
"Being the Parkers keeps us really busy. We appear as the Judge and Mary usually at least once a week, sometimes more," said Sue. "Certain times of the year we are in costume every weekend, especially when there are lots of events going on in the community.”
That is especially true in the fall, as an interest in the historical, and even the spooky, peeks with Halloween festivities. This October alone, the Robisons will appear as the Parkers more than a dozen times, taking part in the Fort Smith Museum of History's "Murder & Mayhem" Trolley Tours in the weeks leading up to Oct. 31. The Parkers and several other historical figures will take part in the tour, which will highlight a number of haunted homes and buildings located throughout downtown Fort Smith and the Belle Grove District. Judge Parker will also be the guest of honor on Oct. 11, as the Museum hosts an early celebration for Parker's 176th birthday, Oct. 15.
Working as professional volunteers has earned Sonny and Sue quite the reputation throughout the community.
"Floyd (Sonny)and Sue are the best volunteers ever," said Leisa Gramlich, executive director of the Fort Smith Museum of History. "They are willing to attend various events in Fort Smith and offer their support to many cultural heritage organizations. All visitors, children and adults, love to visit with the Judge and Mary. They have conducted extensive research so we are assured that all their stories are accurate and based on facts from primary sources.”
Gramlich also believes the Robisons' efforts have also contributed to a renewed interest by many locally in celebrating Fort Smith's Western roots.
"They are excellent ambassadors for promoting tourism in Fort Smith," noted Gramlich. “Their commitment and efforts have definitely contributed to the surge in interest in the area’s western heritage. They make history come to life.”
This year, May was declared Fort Smith Western Heritage Month. With a theme of "Relive the Heritage, Restore the Pride," the month included several weeks of special activities and festivities celebrating all things western, including a color run that started off the annual Old Fort Days Rodeo Parade.
Other contributing factors to the resurgence of Western pride have included the remaking of the famous John Wayne movie classic, "True Grit" and the dedication of the Bass Reeves Statue downtown. The petitioning for and fundraising efforts for the construction of the Marshal's Museum on the Fort Smith Riverfront have also sparked the interest of locals and tourists alike in learning about the town's past.
Sue and Sonny have enjoyed being a part of such projects, as well as many others. They are excited by the recent efforts and hopeful about what is to come in preserving and promoting the city's history.
"These are great for Fort Smith, especially with the Marshal's Museum coming to town," said Sonny. "It will be a tremendous asset."
PRICE OF BEING THE PARKERS
Portraying the Parkers comes with a price. From costumes to travel, expenses can quickly add up, but Sonny and Sue's love of what they do makes it worth it.
"Most of the expenses go to my clothes," joked Sue. "The clothes and travel expenses are the biggies.”
Annually, the Robisons spend hundreds, sometimes even thousands of dollars, out of their own pocket on wardrobe, fuel, and other Parker-related expenses. The two fund their own research, which has included trips to Judge Parker's birthplace in Ohio and where and he and Mary met and lived early in their marriage in Missouri. But they are happy to do it and count themselves blessed to be able do what they love and refuse to charge any fees for their appearances or speaking engagements.
"We are so thankful to be healthy enough and have enough funds to do this," said Sue. "That's why I say we wouldn't do it if we couldn't afford it, but we won't ask for money. That would keep too many people from contacting us.”
When groups or individuals give them donations for their services the Parkers don't keep the money.
”Whenever someone gives us money on a tour or at an event, we turn around and donate it to the museum so it can be put to good use," said Sue. "We tell them that's what we are doing with it. We never keep it for ourselves."
Portraying the Parkers is much more than a game of dress-up for Sonny and Sue. The pair are proud of the role they play in making history a true experience for others.
"The wardrobe is a tool to conversation," explained Sue. "People respond, especially in a historical setting, to people in period clothing. A lot of conversations have been sparked by the simple statement, ’I bet you are hot in that outfit.' That comment often leads to a more in-depth exchange where we can make visitors feel welcome and teach them a little about the Parkers. The costumes help open that door.”
One of the Robison's favorite things about their involvement is getting to meet individuals from near and far.
"We love interacting with visitors at the Museum or at events and making them feel welcome," said Sue. "We have had the privilege of meeting individuals from around the world, as well as get to know many local folks and kids in the areas. It is wonderful.”
Helping spark a love of history in a new generation of locals is particularly fulfilling to Sonny and Sue.
"Kids are one of the main reasons we do this," said Sue. "This spring, we spoke to more than 1,800 students as the Parkers through the Fort Smith Museum of History. It was very rewarding. We need to keep telling these stories and passing down our history to each generation that comes. It is important. We and the others that are doing this now won't be around forever and someone else is going to have to help keep the story going so it isn't forgotten.”
Those interested in hosting the Parkers to appear or speak at their event or meeting can contact Sonny at (479) 831-9274.