Robert C. Crippen, Buffalo area's first black owner of a heating and air conditioning firm - The Buffalo News
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Robert C. Crippen, Buffalo area's first black owner of a heating and air conditioning firm

May 13, 1938 -- Sept. 2, 2017

When Robert Calvin Crippen was learning the heating and air conditioning trade back in the early 1960s, he apprenticed at a pair of companies in the Buffalo area.

As the owner of the second company was considering what to do with his business upon his retirement, he was impressed enough with Mr. Crippen that he decided to pass the company, and its customer base, along to his young, hard-working employee.

And that's how Mr. Crippen in 1964 became, according to his family, the first African-American owner of a heating, ventilation and air conditioning company in the region.

The renamed Crippen Heating and Air Conditioning become a significant contractor that worked on a number of residential and commercial projects in this area, including many churches, thanks to Mr. Crippen's entrepreneurial drive and focus.

"He was a strictly business, no-nonsense, get-it-done kind of guy," said one of Mr Crippen's daughters, Gigi Moore. "He was very tough."

Mr. Crippen died Sept. 2 in Autumn Care of Cornelius, in Cornelius, N.C., where he had lived since April. He was 79.

Mr. Crippen was born in Philadelphia and moved to Buffalo at the age of 3. He attended P.S. 47 and graduated from Lafayette High School. He attended the University at Buffalo and Erie Community College, where he earned certification in heating and air conditioning.

Before going into that field, Mr. Crippen worked for the U.S. Post Office and Bethlehem Steel.

Crippen Heating and Air Conditioning worked on new home construction, home renovations, commercial projects and, notably, many of the region's churches. In 1976, Crippen installed air conditioning at St. John Baptist Church, making it the first Buffalo church with a predominantly black congregation to have the service installed, Moore said.

At its peak, Crippen had about 20 employees and four service trucks. The company was a family affair, Moore said, and she, her siblings and her mother all pitched in to help.

"We used to be trained to say, 'Crippen Heating and Air Conditioning, may I help you?'" Moore said of the phone calls she took as a child.

Mr. Crippen mentored his employees. When he retired, he followed the lead of the owner who passed the company to him and, in turn, handed Crippen's customers over to two of his protégés.

Uly Hankerson continues to run Hankerson Heating & Cooling in Buffalo and Anthony Coleman now operates Coleman Mechanical Services in North Carolina.

Moore said Mr. Crippen's influence can be seen in the career paths of his children, who didn't go into heating and air conditioning but did take on management roles in the business and public-sector realms. For example, one daughter is an elementary school principal in Detroit and one son is owner-operator of a collections agency.

Mr. Crippen at various times lived in Buffalo, Amherst and Pendleton. After retiring in 2005, Mr. Crippen moved to Charlotte to be closer to family there.

He was a member of the NAACP and he was a Mason. Mr. Crippen over the years was a member of several churches, including Trinity Baptist Church, Calvary Baptist Church, St. John Baptist Church, Greater Refuge Temple and, in Charlotte, Victory Christian Center.

In 1981, the Amherst Police Club honored Mr. Crippen and an employee, Nimrod Burkes, as "Citizen of the Year" after both men helped save the life of a girl who was being attacked by two pit bulls, according to his family. The two men were on their way back from a service call when they saw what was happening, parked their truck, got out and managed to free the girl, Moore said.

He received the 1490 Enterprises "President's Award" in 1995 in recognition of outstanding community service, and in 1997 was named "Businessman of the Year" by the Phi Lambda sorority, Beta Phi chapter.

Two sons, Calvin R. and Keith A., predeceased him. In addition to Moore, survivors include another daughter, Delria; a son, Robert C. II; a stepson, Mark E. Blake; his former wives, Fannie Herritage and Cynthia B.; 17 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

A funeral service will be offered at 11 a.m. Monday, Sept. 11 in Greater Refuge Temple of Christ Church, 943 Jefferson Ave.

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