Robert Jennings Jr., a 62-year-old construction company foreman from Northeast Washington who had undergone cancer surgery and a long course of chemotherapy, finally felt strong enough this week to achieve one of his major goals: He went back to work.

Yesterday morning, he walked into a bank in Arlington with the first paycheck he had been able to pick up himself since his July operation for colon cancer, and he was confronted by two robbers. After what a witness described as a struggle, Jennings was shot and killed.

"He didn't want to be robbed," Arlington police spokesman Tom Bell said of the quiet, hard-working church deacon and father of seven. "They put the gun under his chin and pulled the trigger."

According to police, the robbers entered the First Virginia Bank branch at 2776 S. Randolph St. in the Shirlington shopping center about 10:10 a.m. They handcuffed the assistant manager and a customer to a filing cabinet. Three tellers were ordered to lie prone on the floor.

The bank branch is a short distance from where Jennings worked as a foreman for J.A. Laporte Inc. at 3600 S. Four Mile Run Dr.

Soon after the robbers entered the bank, Jennings arrived with his paycheck. The company had continued his salary during his absence, but someone else had always picked up the check.

After Jennings entered, about the same time as a female customer, who was unharmed, the robbers confronted him, the police spokesman said.

"There seems to have been some kind of argument about money," Bell said. "They were trying to rob him, and he didn't want to be robbed."

A cousin said the 6-foot-4 Jennings was not a belligerent man but a "quiet man who kept to himself and his family."

However, added the cousin, J.C. Yeldell, Jennings was a man "who wouldn't let anybody take advantage of him."

When confronted by the robbers, according to Bell, Jennings "apparently got feisty, wouldn't cooperate, and they put the gun under his chin and pulled the trigger." Jennings was also shot in the stomach. He died at Arlington Hospital.

In an interview with WDVM-TV (Channel 9), the unidentified woman who entered the bank when Jennings did, said, "I heard a man in the back of the bank yelling, 'Where's the rest of the money? Where's the rest of the money?' "

The station quoted an unidentified bank employe as saying that Jennings told the robbers he had just had an operation and asking, "Why do you want to do this?"

The robbers fled, apparently in a late-model blue Cadillac El Dorado, according to Bell. Police and the FBI, which investigates bank robberies, declined as a matter of policy to disclose how much money was taken in the bank robbery. However, other sources said it was about $3,000.

After the robbery, witnesses left the bank and sought help at a nearby post office. "They were scared and wanted to call the police," said postal clerk Sharon Fussell.

A man who said he was a regular customer at the bank, but was not present during yesterday's robbery, said it has been robbed four times in three months. Bell said it had been robbed "several times" recently.

The two robbers in yesterday's holdup -- who police spokesman Kenneth J. Rosenberg said referred to each other as "Jones" and "June" -- were still at large last night.

Soon after the Shirlington robbery, a gunman held up the United Savings Bank at 3141 Lee Hwy. in North Arlington at 10:44 a.m. Police said they were investigating to determine if the holdups were connected.

The United Savings Bank was the scene of a Sept. 5 robbery in which an armored truck guard was shot and critically wounded. Three men have been charged in that incident.

At J.A. Laporte, the company where Jennings had worked for more than 35 years, officials were stunned by his slaying. A company vice president called him "one of the very best foremen."

Neighbors and relatives described Jennings as a man devoted to his family, his work and the Bright Light Baptist Church on Sherman Avenue NW.

"You'd see him all week long in work clothes -- he'd be out helping kids fix cars, or fixing something else, but on Sunday he'd get all dressed up, just like a preacher," said neighbor Isabella Sims.

A daughter, Virda Jennings, recalled: "He used to tell us that there was a lot of trouble in the streets. He always told us, 'Be cautious.' "

After his surgery in July, she said, "They said he was doing real good. He had 22 chemotherapy treatments, but he was just getting his strength back. He just wanted to get back to work."