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An Enduring Legacy

As a leading advocate of higher education, Rachel Robinson is in no hurry to slow down her life’s work at the Jackie Robinson Foundation, founded in Stamford forty years ago.

portrait by John Vecchiolla

Rachel Robinson leads the way into her light-filled corner office in New York City’s SoHo, where rays from the afternoon sun dance off her eight-foot oak desk. She walks tall, graceful, dignified—and fast. She bypasses the desk and beckons over to the soft leather chairs in the corner. “Come, make yourself comfortable,” she invites. There’s no pretension in her voice, just welcoming warmth.

Behind and all around her are shelves filled with books, art and pieces of history—mostly photographs—of Rachel and her husband, the late, great Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League baseball. Rachel and Jackie stand with every imaginable celebrity—presidents, athletes, scholars, artists and peacemakers—in scenes from around the world. And then there are intimate portraits of Rachel and Jackie at home in Stamford, living a normal family life with three kids.

Rachel turned ninety in July, but you’d never know it to look at her. She is wearing an elegant camel-colored pantsuit with matching sling backs, silver hair flipping on her shoulders. She looks and carries herself like a model closing in on seventy. It’s a wonder, considering all she’s done, all the struggles, all the successes, all the living. “People always ask me when I plan to retire,” she says, “but I don’t know why I would. I love this work.”

She’s cut back some, though, coming to the office just twice a week from her current home in Salem. She’s always had a five-year plan in life and in this portion she’s trying her darnedest to organize all of her mementos at home. “I have thousands of photos and thousands of clippings, but I don’t seem to have the time to organize them all.” That’s because she’s often running off somewhere, to visit her daughter in Florida one week, her son in Tanzania another. She’s just returned from Los Angeles, where she advised filmmakers who are working on a movie about her husband. She posed for photos with Harrison Ford, who is starring in 42, the number her husband wore when he played second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the title of the film. Her friends wish she would slow down. One recent stumble resulted in a broken shoulder. “I can’t help it,” she says. “I like to move fast.”

Outside of her office, dozens of people are at work at the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which The New York Times said “might be the best educational effort in the country.” It’s a busy time, as they’re readying a new batch of scholars for school in September. The foundation provides four-year scholarships, mentoring and leadership training to underserved students. Rachel is the founder, but she serves as part dignitary, part executive, part scholar, part visionary, committed to helping young people become strong, courageous leaders able to break barriers on their own.

Advocating for Youth

The foundation was born in Stamford, a phoenix that arose from a very dark gloom. Forty years ago, on October 24, 1972, Jackie Robinson suffered a heart attack in the family’s Cascade Road home, sparking a period of mourning in a city the Robinsons had infused with jazz, baseball and activism. With Jackie gone, the curtain came down on all that vibrancy. The smile fades in Rachel’s bright eyes as she recounts the painful period. About eighteen months earlier, their eldest son, Jackie Jr., a Vietnam War veteran who had battled drugs but seemed to finally be healing, died in a car crash. A year after her husband’s death, Rachel’s mother died, and then so did her best friend. Rachel, at the time a mental health nurse and professor at Yale, had a difficult time finding the light. She knew she couldn’t let herself wallow in sorrow. So she invited some friends over and asked for their guidance.

“When we sat at my kitchen table we asked ‘What can we do to perpetuate Jack’s legacy and to heal?’” They tossed around ideas, including education, to which the Robinsons were committed. The couple met at UCLA, where Rachel had studied nursing and Jack had lettered in four sports. They wanted to continue his spirit of leadership and activism. What if they started a foundation in his name? “Education was a key to life for us, so that made sense from the start.” Each September a new batch of JRF Scholars begins college—fifty-six this year—bringing the total to about 1,400 over the years. Nearly 100 percent of the foundation’s scholars graduate from college. “Money is primary, but it’s just a part of it. We’re also working on their leadership potential. They need mentors and they all have them. We bring them all to New York for networking.”

One of those scholars is Stamford’s Jeré Eaton. Technically she’s a former scholar, having received her award decades ago. But being a JRF Scholar is a designation that comes with responsibilities for life. These days Jeré is the president of the Stamford-based marketing firm PrintabiliTees and the past president of the Stamford branch of the NAACP. But in 1979 she was a high-schooler living in public housing who liked to shoot hoops at the Yerwood Center on Fairfield Avenue. “I knew from the age of seven that I wanted to carry a briefcase to work,” Jeré says, “and I knew that you had to have a college degree to carry a briefcase.” That knowledge came by way of Jeré’s mother, who worked an hourly job as a credit manager, but whose sister graduated with a degree in education and brother went to Harvard and Columbia. She encouraged her daughter to follow in their footsteps. One day at the Yerwood Center, Jeré heard about the Jackie Robinson Foundation scholarship and applied.

As a JRF Scholar, Jeré was exposed to a whole new world. “I got my first limousine ride at the age of eighteen,” she remembers. “We stayed in New York and were driven to Greenwich for workshops.” In leadership training, she met Bill Cosby and the Washington Post’s Katharine Graham. “I remember sitting on the edge of the stage at the Robinson home and Sarah Vaughn was singing. I got to meet Lena Horne.” Rachel Robinson was always nearby, expecting the best out of her scholars, Jeré recalls. “The year that Jesse Jackson was running for president, we were all with him at Rachel’s house and we were trying to be cool.” Their aloof behavior did not meet with Rachel’s standards, however. “She called us out and said we are an extension of her family and we [had] embarrassed her. She said ‘you are expected to be professional.’

Blazing a Trail

In the early years prior to the foundation, it was not unusual to find the likes of Jesse Jackson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gathered alongside jazz greats at the Robinson home in Stamford. The Robinsons were known jazz enthusiasts and knew several musicians personally. But the gatherings carried a deeper purpose. After Jackie retired from baseball, he became an executive for Chock full O’ Nuts, and a vocal activist in the Civil Rights Movement. The Robinsons could not sit idly by as marchers clashed with fire hoses and police dogs in cities like Birmingham and Jackson, so Jackie met with Dr. King in Birmingham to find out what he could do. The answer was raise bail money to help get marchers out of jail.

It occurred to Rachel and Jackie that the sloping hillside on their North Stamford property would make for an ideal amphitheater, and in 1963 they offered to use their home to host an afternoon of jazz. Volunteers staffed the program (Rachel’s mother baked cakes for the raffle) and musicians played for free. The Robinsons turned over every dollar of the proceeds to help the protesters. Three decades later, the annual jazz program still continued, though at Cranbury Park in Norwalk after it outgrew the Robinsons’ home, attracting hundreds of jazz greats including Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Mann, Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Wynton Marsalis and more. Then, the proceeds benefited the foundation.

One frequent volunteer at the concerts was J’von Harris, who was born and raised in Stamford and played baseball for the Jackie Robinson Little League at Kosciuszko Park. “I knew about Jackie Robinson. He was discussed by the men in the family,” says J’von, whose grandfather owned his own business in Stamford, Cummings Construction. “[Jackie] was obviously more than a baseball player. He ran track. He served in the military. He gave back to his community. He was a family man. He was an executive in New York City, and the fact that he lived in Stamford, well, there’s pride in knowing that. He was well equipped to deal with the pressures of the time.” J’von heard from his grandparents of prejudices that lurked in the city when the Robinsons first moved in. Rachel remembers this well. In 1955, she says, the Robinsons were growing too big for their little home on Long Island, and Jackie was pondering retirement from baseball. She’d scour The New York Times real estate section, and then they’d get in the car to drive and to dream.

“Jack and I loved the country and we drove all around looking at all these wonderful places,” says Rachel. When she enlisted the help of some real estate agents, though, the house-hunting did not go as Rachel had imagined. Nothing nice seemed to be available. “I did make a bid at the asking price at one house and the real estate agent said it was no longer for sale. They took it off the market when they found out who we were.” And so it went, from bid to bid and house to house, until a story in a Bridgeport newspaper about racial discrimination mentioned the Robinsons’ plight. A handful of white ministers in Stamford decided to act. They met for tea at the summer home of Andrea and Richard Simon, of Simon & Schuster fame, and invited Rachel to tell them what was going on. “They were appalled that we were meeting with all these closed doors,” Rachel recalls, and the ministers promised to preach against prejudice from the pulpit the following Sunday. In the meantime, Andrea Simon did some conspiring with the help of a realtor friend. “Andrea, being a woman of action, took us to a place that afternoon that was ideal. It was stunning and very warm and offered us many possibilities as a family.”

On six hillside acres with a pond, the Robinsons built a house filled with stonework, floor-to-ceiling windows and a wraparound deck. But no sooner did the Robinsons move in in 1955 than two families down the street moved out. “They said they were moving because the neighborhood was changing,” Rachel says. Jackie, who liked to play golf when he wasn’t playing ball, was rejected for admission at the High Ridge Country Club in Pound Ridge. His first son, Jackie Jr., was the only black child in school. He found the courage to play youth baseball but was ridiculed by fans at Little League and Babe Ruth games. The Robinsons enrolled their youngest, David, in private school in the hope that his experience would be a little more accepting. Unfortunately, it seemed even more isolating.

Harris says he’s grateful for the trail blazed in Stamford by families like the Robinsons and his own grandparents. “A lot of stories that my grandparents told me are unbelievable,” says Harris, a senior treasury analyst for General Electric who lives in Stamford with his wife and daughters. “I know and respect the challenges that they had to overcome.”

Always Giving Back

Pursuing higher education was not a question for Harris, now thirty-nine, the oldest of five siblings, whose parents attended college. The question was how he would pay for it. He applied for help to the Robinson Foundation, made it through the first cut and was called for an interview. “I went to a bank that doesn’t exist anymore in downtown Stamford and went into a boardroom with a big round table with people ready to interview me. It was a little intimidating.” Harris made the cut, though, and with the Robinson Foundation helping to pay the way, enrolled at Hampton University in Virginia as an international business major. He was a presidential scholar housed in the honors dorms. He was expected to attend networking meetings and leadership training and to give back to his community.

Today Harris serves on the JRF scholarship committee and evaluates thousands of applicants. In April, for Kids Day, he visited Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, to meet with students in the Jackie Robinson rotunda, tell them about Robinson’s life, and to encourage them to study for their SATs and go to college. “To keep their eye on the prize,” he says.

It’s a lesson he learned from Rachel Robinson. “She’s a very classy, regal, beautiful person with a beautiful spirit,” Harris offers. “She always seems to have a kind word. I have a lot of respect for her. She’s been through and seen a lot and she’s equally important to the Jackie Robinson story. It’s because of her that that foundation exists.”

Back in SoHo, time is fleeting, and Rachel Robinson has a pressing engagement. Out in the foundation office four new JRF Scholars have gathered, juggling books and bags and backpacks and an airplane pillow or two. They’ve come to say goodbye before their flight. They’re heading to Ireland for a symposium at The Clinton Centre for International Peace, charged with presenting ideas for building prosperity in post-conflict societies. “This is a way of expanding their horizons and helping them to become members of an international community. It broadens their whole perspective,” Rachel says, beaming, before setting off down the hallway, trying hard not to walk too fast.

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