When the siren rang in the middle of the night at Laurel Volunteer Fire Department’s former location on Montgomery Avenue, Joe Robison could be counted on to come running in the yellow sweatshirt he always wore and his pajama bottoms, his fellow volunteers remembered.
“We relied on him,” said Jim Codespote, the department’s current fire chief. “All us young guys there, none of us could drive.”
“He knew Laurel like the back of his hand,” said Mayor Craig Moe, who met Robison when he joined the department in 1976. “He knew the ins and outs to get to fires.”
And if anyone had any questions about Laurel’s past, everyone knew whom to seek.
“Go ask Joe,” said Karen Lubieniecki, chairperson of the Laurel Historical Society board of directors. “What was absolutely amazing about Joe was his encyclopedic knowledge of Laurel.”
Joseph Robison, 87, died Tuesday. A lifelong Laurel resident, Robison’s love for Laurel was evident by the numerous hats he wore for the city, including mayor and fire chief, and the organizations he was part of, including the Laurel Historical Society, the American Legion and St. Mary of the Mills Catholic Church.
Born Jan. 23, 1933, Robison attended St. Mildred’s school (now St. Mary of the Mills) and graduated from Laurel High School in 1952. At the age of 14, he began firefighting with the Maryland State Forestry Department. He was accepted as a member of the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department in September 1951, where he served in all operational offices and was on the board of trustees for the last 30 years.
“He was a fixture here at the fire department. He was an active participant, attending meetings, until COVID[-19],” said Codespote, who first met Robison when he joined the department 33 years ago. “He was our historian and would provide history for our meetings for the younger guys to know.”
Robison was a past president of the Maryland State Firemen’s Association, serving from 1989 to 1990; past president of the Prince George’s County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, serving from 1968 to 1969; president of the Maryland Fire Chief’s Association; and was part of many other fire and rescue organizations.
He served on the Prince George’s County Fire Commission since its inception in 1970 until he retired in 2003. He served 19 years as its vice chairperson and served four years as its chairperson.
“He was known throughout the entire state,” Codespote said. “He was responsible for a lot of things and had statewide accomplishments. If it was not for COVID[-19], we would have a huge memorial service for him and people would come from all over the state.”
In 1999, Engine 103 was dedicated to him and a life member of the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department, Louis Luber.
“I have a ton of memories,” Codespote said. “It’s a huge loss.”
Robison was a charter member and life member of the Laurel Volunteer Rescue Squad. As chairman of the Board of Directors, he was instrumental in obtaining the land and coordinating the construction of their first station which they still occupy. He also served as treasurer of the Building Committee.
In 1988, Robison was elected to serve on the Laurel City Council for Ward 1. In March 1990, he was elected Laurel’s mayor, a position he held until March 1994.
During his term as mayor, Robison started the mandatory recycling program in 1990, one of the first programs in Prince George’s County. He established a sports park, a new community center was designed and built and the purchase and renovation of the present City Hall was completed.
“Joe was always moving and networking,” Moe said. “Joe could be tough ... an individual who stood his ground. We had a lot of conversations where we did not agree, but we never forgot about our friendship.”
Robison also authorized the use of the city-owned Factory House by the Laurel Historical Society for the Laurel History Museum.
“He worked diligently with us,” said Betty Compton, founding member of the Laurel History Museum. “We were able to get matching funds through his actions and permits for improvements to the building.”
Robison remained active with the Historical Society, serving as chairperson of the board.
“Joe was always thinking about history and preserving the past,” Moe said. “I don’t know where he got it from, but the door to the mayor’s office is the door from Merrill Harrison’s (Laurel’s mayor from 1948 to 1954) office. He was so proud of it.”
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Robison was also known for his walking tours of the city.
“His knowledge of the people, the buildings and the history, he was a wonderful source of information,” Lubieniecki, said. “He absolutely loved Laurel.”
Robison married his high school sweetheart, Joan, in 1955 and the couple had two daughters, Bette Anne Sanders and Mitzi Betman.
“His wife, Joan, was 100% his partner in everything he did,” Compton said. “His family, their support, was very important to him.”
For many, their friendship with Robison was one to cherish.
“All of us who had the opportunity to work with him are blessed to know him,” Compton said. “He did great things for our community.”
"He was a delightful man and a wonderful human being,” Lubieniecki said. “People will miss him.”