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Jackie Robinson 50th Anniversary Commemorative: Breaking
Barriers

Rachel Robinson

Jackie's Partner Played a Big Role, but She Wants to End Any Myths That She Had to Keep Pushing Him

March 31, 1997|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was a pioneer on and off the field--breaking baseball's color barrier and lecturing and lobbying later against racial inequity and injustice.

It has been 50 years since Jackie Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Would he consider it a half-century of progress? Would he be pleased with the status of race relations today?

"No, I think he'd be very disturbed about it," said Rachel Robinson, his widow. "We're seeing a great deal of divisiveness, a lot of hatred, a lot of tension between ethnic groups, and I think he'd be disappointed.

"We would expect to be further along by now, and we're seeing it worldwide, tensions between groups and the failure to recognize and value differences and work out old conflicts.

"I don't feel despair about it because I think despair and cynicism only undercut our ability to address these issues and do something about them.

"So I've maintained a certain level of optimism, but it's restrained by a realistic knowledge of what's going on in the world."

Dignified and vibrant at 74, Rachel Robinson remains her late husband's partner, as she put it, on a course to affect the lives of others.

She is immersed in carrying on his legacy as founder of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which has sent almost 500 minority students through college, extending through education and community service the breakthrough work he started and "allowing Jack to live on through these students."

Rachel Isum was born and raised in Los Angeles. Her brother, Raymond, still lives in the family house on 36th Place. She and her future husband met as students at UCLA in 1941 and were married in 1946.

While Jackie Robinson went on to carve out a landmark career that changed the course of major league baseball and ultimately took him to the Hall of Fame, Rachel Robinson enhanced her Bachelor of Science degree from UCLA with a Masters in psychiatric nursing from New York University and was an assistant professor at Yale's School of Nursing while also serving as nursing director at the Connecticut Mental Health Center.

She found time amid that busy workload to cheer the Dodgers at Ebbets Field and help raise three children: Jackie Jr., who was killed in a 1971 automobile accident; Sharon Robinson Fieffe, a practicing nurse-midwife and assistant clinical professor at Yale, and David, a coffee and sculpture importer who lives in Tanzania.

Among numerous awards and honors, Rachel Robinson has received eight honorary degrees but most prizes her nine grandchildren.

She lives in Salem, Conn., but often visits family and friends in Los Angeles.

She will be at Dodger Stadium on Saturday when the Dodgers commemorate the 50th anniversary of Robinson's debut and at the Museum of Tolerance for the opening of a commemorative exhibit the next day.

During an interview with The Times, she often referred to a book she has written with Lee Daniels titled "Jackie Robinson, an Intimate Portrait."

In it, she wrote:

"As I reflect on my life, I think of it as a creative struggle, and I share the conviction of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who, in a speech made in New York on August 4, 1857, said, 'If there is no struggle there is no progress.' I am one of the fortunate ones granted a mission at the age of twenty-three, a great partner, and the spirit to prevail."

Jackie Robinson's spirit, and in many ways that of his wife, will be commemorated throughout the year.

Players and umpires will wear "Breaking Barriers" arm patches. The U.S. Mint will sell commemorative coins. A video created by Spike Lee will be shown on stadium scoreboards. Individual clubs have scheduled commemorative events, and baseball is pledging $1 million to the Robinson Foundation, part of the foundation's campaign to create a $12-million endowment fund.

Asked if she was satisfied with the commemorative schedule and events, Rachel Robinson said:

"I'm very satisfied. Not just [the events] that baseball has laid out because baseball is being very active in this process. But also there have been celebrations of different kinds in various cities and universities, so I'm very interested in the diversity of approaches to the celebration and very excited about everything that's happening, because I know we're heightening awareness of Jack's life, activities and achievements."

*

Question: Considering your pace and activities, does it seem like 50 years or 50 minutes?

Answer: Well, the way I live, I live very much in the future. I have great reverence for the past, but I live and move so fast that time goes by very fast, so it doesn't seem like 50 years, and I'm going to be 75 years old this year, and that surprises me too.

*

Q: Is one moment or one memory from that first game [April 15, 1947] sharpest to you?

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