Rachel Robinson to receive UCLA's highest honor
"A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives." — Jackie Robinson
When 53-year-old Jackie Robinson died of a heart attack in 1972, it ended all too soon the life of a national champion for equal rights who stood up to the entrenched forces of racism in professional baseball with courage, dignity and grace.
His untimely death devastated the woman who had shared his life ever since they met as students at UCLA, Rachel Robinson. A psychiatric nurse by training who built a successful career as a researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, a director of nursing for a mental health center and an assistant professor at Yale School of Nursing, Rachel Robinson was determined to "pull myself out of that deep hole" to push Jack’s legacy forward.
Rachel Robinson. Photos courtesy of the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
“It had to be more than just naming a building or a street for him. It had to be something active, alive and something in the area of education,” said Robinson, now 86.
Today, the name of Jackie Robinson, who famously broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947 as a player with the Brooklyn Dodgers, lives on beyond ball fields and sports stadiums. To honor his values and cement his legacy, Rachel Robinson founded the Jackie Robinson Foundation (JRF) a year after his death.
To date, more than 1,300 minority students have graduated from colleges and universities across the country supported by more than $18 million in scholarships from the foundation. Another 300 JRF scholars, including 18 attending UCLA, are in the college pipeline. And 14 more — designated as Extra Innings Fellows — are doing postgraduate work at Harvard Law School and the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, among other institutions. Last year, JRF started an international studies program and sent six students to Africa.
“We don’t just give them money,” Robinson explained. Networking, mentoring, community service projects and leadership development are all built into the program.
After her husband’s death, she also incorporated the Jackie Robinson Development Corporation to build housing for low- and moderate-income families. More than 1,300 housing units were built and managed in the 10 years she served as its president.
For her dedication to the cause of education, social activism and professional achievements, Robinson will return to campus on May 9, UCLA Day, to receive the university’s highest honor, the UCLA Medal, from Chancellor Gene Block and Athletic Director Dan Guerrero.
“Among our many accomplished alumni, perhaps none is more committed to empowering others to live better lives than Rachel Robinson," Chancellor Gene Block said. "We are especially grateful for her tireless dedication to provide scholarships and leadership training, which has enabled so many deserving students to pursue their dreams at UCLA and other leading universities.”
Calling from New York, where the L.A. native now lives, Robinson said, “Getting the UCLA Medal is such a stunning tribute. I would never, ever have anticipated it. To receive this from the university that I love and respect so much is very, very exciting and uplifting to me.” A campus encounter
Robinson, née Isum, graduated from Manual Arts High School and came to UCLA in 1940 because it was the best of the options her family could afford. “We knew that UCLA had a great reputation … and, if I could get in, I knew it would be the best place for me.”
Robinson held jobs throughout college, including working as a riveter on the night shift at Lockheed. “I didn’t have time to go out to many places to socialize,” she recalled. But she had gone to a couple of football games where she noticed one particular player.
Jackie Robinson on the football field.
“I thought he was arrogant because of the way he stood in the backfield with his hands on his hips. That’s the one trait that I just can’t stand in an individual. So I was very surprised at how he presented himself when I actually met him,” she said.
They met in Kerckhoff Hall, where African-American students hung out during their free time. Jackie Robinson, already a Big Man On Campus for being the first Bruin to letter in four sports in a single year, was a senior and three years older than she when they were introduced by a mutual friend, fellow football player Ray Bartlett.
“Jack was quiet, confident, friendly and had a beautiful smile, just the opposite of what I had anticipated,” she remembered of their first encounter. “I was just so relieved to see that he was a human being that I could admire.”
Robinson, left, graduated from UCLA with an AA degree in nursing in 1942.
Unfortunately, Jack’s eligibility expired at UCLA in his senior year since he had played football at Pasadena Junior College before coming to Westwood. He also felt strongly that his mother needed him to contribute financially. And so to Rachel and his mother’s dismay, he decided to leave UCLA without his degree.
“We really wanted him to get his degree, but he couldn’t see how it was going to benefit him when his family needed the money,” she recalled. “He made his choice, and he lived with it. It turned out not to be such a bad choice because he did get into professional sports.”
Rachel Robinson, however, continued to pursue her nursing degree and graduated. It would be 10 years after her college graduation — after Jack had retired from the Brooklyn Dodgers and her youngest child had entered the first grade — before she realized her dream of pursuing graduate studies in nursing at NYU.
“I kept my plans to myself,” said Robinson, who studied on her own to prepare for graduate school. “I was determined I was going to work and have a career of my own. With Jack’s early demise, it turned out to be the right thing to do.” An era of racism
Even while Jack was playing for UCLA, racism was a harsh reality in college athletics in places like Texas. On games away from Westwood, black athletes were routinely turned away by restaurants and hotels.
“He didn’t talk very much about it in college,” Robinson recalled. “But, of course, we saw plenty of it when he went into baseball. In the ’50s, we became much more aware — and more vocal — about experiences like that.”
They were married in February 1946. A week later they headed out on their honeymoon to Daytona Beach, Fla., where Jack was to begin spring training with the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ International League farm club.
It was to be an eye-opening trip, her first venture to the South where Jim Crow flourished. “We had a terrible honeymoon,” she recalled. “We were bumped from two planes when white passengers were put on. We had to stay out and wait. We finally had to take a bus to Daytona Beach. We were rushing all the way, trying to get there on time.”
Enroute to Florida, the couple survived on candy and fruit rather than deal with the problem of segregated restaurants. The first time she saw public restrooms and drinking fountains labeled for whites only, she was taken aback, but not for long. "I actually walked into a white women's restroom. ... It was a tiny little gesture to restore my self-respect."
Once they arrived in Daytona, the couple could not stay in the regular team hotel with the rest of the players, but had to take a room in a private home. And that proved only to be the beginning. In Jacksonville, where the team was to play, the stadium was padlocked shut. “The team couldn’t play there,” she recalled. “Then Jack was escorted off the field in Sanford, Fla.,” where the police chief threatened to cancel the game if Jack and another black player were going to play.
Making their home a refuge
When the name-calling, hate mail and death threats persisted, the couple developed their own rules for survival. Their home, they vowed, would be a place of refuge for them and their three children. “I always felt very protective toward him,” she recalled. “I went to every home game.” But it was on the drive home when they would “debrief about what had happened, what we saw, what we heard. Before we got home, we had all those kinds of talks because home was a place where we needed to relax and not have to deal with the tensions of the outside world.”
The Robinsons in the late 50s (clockwise from the top): Jackie, Rachel, David, Jackie Jr. and Sharon.
Today, Rachel Robinson, mother of two after a 1971 car accident killed her eldest son and grandmother of 10, continues to protect her husband’s legacy in many ways. In addition to fundraising for scholarships, she is in the midst of a $25 million fundraising campaign to build the Jackie Robinson Museum in Manhattan’s Tribeca. Half of that goal has already been raised, and she has set her sights on an opening next year.
Through it all, UCLA remains close to her and the center of her activities. Assistant Vice Chancellor of Government and Community Relations Keith Parker serves on the Western Region Advisory Committee for the foundation, as does Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. When he was in New York in 2008, Chancellor Gene Block visited with Robinson at the foundation’s new headquarters.
“I have never lost contact with the campus,” said Robinson, who said she is eagerly anticipating taking part in UCLA Day. “I have always felt very close to the university. It’s really the place where I grew up.”
To learn more about what's in store for UCLA Day, see this UCLA Today story