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Robinson dinner salutes those who open doors

NEW YORK -- One of America's most celebrated legacies took center stage at the Waldorf Astoria on Monday night, when the Jackie Robinson Foundation held its annual Awards Dinner. Robinson, the famed sports and civil rights icon, lived with dignity and daring, setting an example that many have been inspired to follow over the ensuing generations.

That was made vividly clear in the Foundation's annual celebration, which linked Robinson to the members of contemporary society who best embody the ideals he followed in his life. Sharon Robinson, the legend's daughter and biographer, graciously took on the role of hostess Monday night, explaining the event's grand significance.

"The Jackie Robinson Foundation is a scholarship and leadership development organization," she said. "We have approximately 240 scholars in colleges and universities across the country, and all MLB teams have a Jackie Robinson scholar. That's something new. Before we had a scattering of teams that had one, but now they all have one or two or three.

"They come to New York once a year for what we call our networking weekend or our leadership development conference. ... And then they meet with their corporate sponsors and start getting set up for their summer jobs and summer internships. So it's really an important time. And it's an important time for us to have some one-on-one time with them."

Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947, often spoke to the importance of an education and for the need for America to integrate as quickly and as painlessly as possible. The Foundation -- started in his honor after his passing in 1972 -- has taken on that ideal and steadily grown larger over the years as the dream has become a reality.

Three people -- Ingrid Saunders Jones, Joseph R. Perella and Sean "Diddy" Combs -- were recognized Monday for living lives of distinction and prosperity. Saunders Jones was awarded the ROBIE Humanitarian Award, while both Perella and Combs were gifted with the ROBIE Achievement in Industry Award in respect for their corporate accomplishments.

Della Britton Baeza, president and chief executive officer of the Foundation, underlined the event's importance.

"Every year, it's our most exciting evening," said Baeza of the Awards Dinner. "Not because it's our largest fund-raiser, but because this is our opportunity to put in front of our students some of those role models that have done it. And not just done it well, but done it the right way. And tonight you'll see that we have a pretty eclectic mix of honorees.

"Ingrid [Saunders Jones] is kind of the classic 'work your way up the corporate ladder' image for our students. And then the second honoree, Joe Parella, is certainly a New York icon and I'd venture to say a national icon. He's everything that's good about corporate America. He has a real sense of philanthropy and a good code of ethics for how to raise capital. ... Then, of course, Sean "Diddy" Combs -- his most recent name I'm told -- is a real American-made successful businessman."

Nearly a thousand faces filled the Grand Ballroom at the Walford Astoria on Monday to be part of the proceedings, many of whom were key contributors to the cause over the last year. Sharon Robinson said that the Jackie Robinson Foundation is still working on building a museum in the namesake's honor and that Monday's event will serve as a key fund-raiser.

Bill Cosby, one of the nation's leading comedians and social commentators, served as honorary host for the evening, and he charmed the assembled audience with a first-hand account of what it was like to live through the Civil Rights era. Cosby spoke of icons like Ollie Matson and Marian Anderson, relating what it was like to grow up in race-fueled adversity.

"In those days, the beauty and the joy of people saying, 'Because of your color, you can't,' and to see people come along who said, 'I will. And not only that, I'm going to break your records,'" said Cosby. "And this is what Jackie Robinson -- along with his wonderful, beautiful and lovely wife Rachel -- this is what year after year after year, this symbol, I'm just telling you that you've got to celebrate more. ... This was 1936, to watch Jesse Owens, on film. Man, I was sitting in Mary Chandler West Elementary School, I saw that thing five years in a row, and every time I was hoping Jesse would win.

"I saw Joe Louis," he said, continuing his telling anecdote. "I saw Sugar Ray [Robinson], and I rooted for him because people said they couldn't. And they did. And they beat the records. And they moved up in football. They said they couldn't play linebacker and they did. But to this day, we still look for you all to keep coming and to continue to win."

Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, was also part of the event, speaking on behalf of the city. Bloomberg mentioned the recent passing of Robinson's teammate Duke Snider and related it back to the evening's mission statement.

"There aren't many Boys of Summer around any more, but their lives and achievements still resonate strongly with all of us," he said. "It has been more than 60 years since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, but I still don't think you can tell the story often enough. Our children, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren need to know. They need to know about Jackie Robinson's incredible talent, his amazing grace and [his struggle] for equality and opportunity.

"They need to know how he was subject to terrible abuse during his career and how he shouldered that abuse, one single individual against so many to create a better world. And let's be clear: It was not just for himself that he did it. He did it for his fellow black ballplayers and he did it all for all of us, no matter what our ethnicity is and no matter where in the world we live. Every single person is stronger because of Jackie Robinson."

That sentiment became even more evident by the night's distinguished group of guests. Saunders Jones, a senior vice president of global community connections for the Coca-Cola Company, was introduced by Rev. Calvin Butts, who spoke kindly and warmly about the honoree and the path she had taken to her place of prominence.

Saunders Jones accepted her award with grace and dignity, saying she had learned about Robinson and his achievements at home, where he was held in high regard by both her father and mother. She said that she wished her parents could have been there that night, and then she spoke to the assembled Foundation scholars lining the balcony.

"I want you to know that our expectations of you are very large," she said, speaking of society in general and the Foundation's honorees. "I want you to know that my path to this job -- to this place -- required many choices that were at the time filled with risk. In one instance, passing on a secure job back home in Detroit for new challenges in a new field and in a new city. In another instance, it meant leaving the security and the prestige of the mayor's office for the unfamiliar territory of corporate America and a job that actually required me to take a paycut from government. They made up for it. Looking back now, I see that each of these moves gave me the skills that I needed to reach this place so that I could work with purpose."

Perella, a former vice chairman of Morgan Stanley and a founding member of Perella Weinberg Partners, was introduced by close friend and protege Raymond J. McGuire, Citi's head of global banking. McGuire said that Perella had been a friend and a mentor to him earlier in his career and that he was honored to stand by him on this occasion.

And when he took the stage, Perella took the opportunity to remind people what Robinson had stood for during his momentous life in the public eye. Perella said that he had spent hours searching the Internet for references to Robinson, and he chose to read aloud from letters that the sporting legend had written to Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy.

Combs, music mogul and impresario, was preceded by peer Russell Simmons, who spoke of what it was like to see the young man rise through the industry. Combs, Simmons said, had a habit of making people recognize him immediately. Simmons said that Combs had inspired him for many years as he rose from intern to a true titan of modern industry.

"I was in music first and I was hot. I had my company ... and I was always inspired by Sean's new ideas and creativity and eventually he ran me out of the record business," said Simmons of Combs' maturation. "After he ran me out of the music business, he told me that he wanted to do fashion like me, because I was hot. ...And then Macy's started moving our space smaller and smaller, and his place got bigger and bigger. And eventually he ran me out of the clothing business."

Combs, the evening's final speaker, spoke in humble terms about what the event meant to him.

"I don't even know where to start. One thing I want to say is 'This is the best award I've ever gotten in my entire life," he said. "When I was coming up in the game, I wanted to get a Grammy. ... There's a lot of things that you want growing up, but this is something I [never] asked for or knew that I would receive, and I feel truly humbled and blessed."

Moments later, Combs spoke of the work ethic he had learned from his mother, who worked two jobs to help support him. Combs also spoke glowingly of Cosby, who had shown him the potential for a better life through his television program The Cosby Show. But most importantly, Combs spoke to the scholars.

"The greatness of a man like Jackie Robinson comes not only from his talent as an athlete," he said. "It comes from his spirit as a humanitarian. He had to be thinking about not just himself; He had to be thinking about others. He had to be thinking about the future. Jackie Robinson once said that 'A life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives.'

"And as I thought about coming here tonight, the power of those words -- the responsibility -- made me stop and think. To say my name in the same breath as Jackie Robinson is beyond humbling, and it's something that I had to ask myself if I was ready and if I was worthy of it. ...I had to ask myself if I was ready. And I'm here to tell you tonight that I am ready."