By JAMISON COCKLIN
After more than 60 years working in the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning industry, one Canfield man insists that he hasn’t quite retired just yet.
“I don’t work full time anymore — I just go out and help people,” said Robert Thomas, 93, who only partially retired in November, after a career that began by chance in 1948, when the fruits of air conditioning were still seldom.
“I can still remember my first service call,” he said. “We were riding in a pickup truck and the other guy I was with read from a service manual the whole way there. We didn’t even know what the machine looked like, but we still had to fix it.”
In those days, Thomas was working for a farm equipment dealer and he fell into the trade out of necessity. There were milk coolers, air conditioners and refrigerators that needed to be fixed.
“I miss it. I loved being able to solve a problem,” he said with fondness as he recalled how he learned the craft. “I learned it on my own by experimenting, redoing things and trying to get it right.
“I can remember I used to go back to job sites in my free time just to figure things out.”
Eventually, World War II began, and Thomas joined the Army Air Corps, what is now the Air Force. There, he was able to expand on his abilities by working with the oxygen systems used in military aircraft. While in the service, Thomas found what his oldest daughter described as one of his first loves — flight.
Shortly before the war ended, Thomas became a pilot and learned how to fly single-engine fighter planes. Even though he never saw action, he went on to become a civilian flight instructor at a club in Andover.
“One of the things he enjoyed most was flying,” said Barbara Pilarcik of Wilbraham, Mass., Thomas’s oldest daughter, who was in Canfield on Friday visiting with her mother and father. “In those days he was a young man, and it used to make him really happy to take me flying.”
Pilarcik explained how as a little girl, Thomas would take her to the nearby airport in Andover for flights filled with stunts.
“I thought this is how every little girl should grow up,” she said.
Throughout the years, Thomas had a number of jobs doing both commercial and residential work. He worked as a factory sales representative and also became self-employed. In November, when he decided to “take it easy,” he closed his business, Rob’s Service Center.
But it was his time teaching in vocational schools when Thomas was able to really delve into the ins and outs of his trade. He taught refrigeration and air-conditioning classes on the side in Niles and New Castle, Pa., the curriculum for which he designed himself.
“Robert literally took me under his wing. He had so much patience and respect for everyone,” said Jim Colbrunn of Hubbard, a former student in one of Thomas’ classes, Colbrunn who now runs his own company called Professional Appliance Services. “He walked me right through it all; my business took right off after that,” Colbrunn added.
Colbrunn, who went to ETI Technical College in Niles in 1985, said Thomas would not move on with a class until everyone understood the material. Today, Colbrunn works with his three sons, and he said much of what Thomas taught him has been passed along to them.
With more free time on his hands, Thomas says he still makes repairs around the house and keeps up with the industry online. He’s also busy spending time with his wife and family members. In addition to his oldest daughter, he has two other children.
“My nickname for him is the ‘Energizer bunny,’” Pilarcik said while holding back laughter, adding her parents “come from a different era. They always worked hard and they still take care of themselves.”