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Spreading Jackie's legend a Robinson family affair

Daughter Sharon brings message to middle schoolers with relatives in attendance

PASADENA, Calif. -- A registered nurse and midwife for 23 years, and a teacher as well, Sharon Robinson was back in her element on Monday, surrounded by impressionable young people.

Before the Brooklyn Dodgers, before the Kansas City Monarchs, before UCLA, Pasadena City College and John Muir High School, there was Washington Junior High School in the life of Jack Roosevelt Robinson. Years before becoming a lionized athlete and figure of profound historical impact, he was a Washington Bear, developing skills that would take him off the mean streets of northwest Pasadena.

The school that educated Robinson and his siblings in the formative years of 12 through 14 still stands at 1505 N. Marengo Ave., a racially diverse student body finding daily inspiration from its teachers and the legacy of the great man featured in the blockbuster movie, "42."

Awakening Monday morning to Jackie Robinson Day, observing the 66th anniversary of her father's society-changing debut with the Dodgers in Brooklyn, Sharon Robinson addressed an assembly of middle schoolers under the banner of "Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life."

In the course of a deeply personal message, Ms. Robinson -- joined by Dodgers star Matt Kemp and former Dodgers star Tommy Davis -- awarded an iPad to 12-year-old Alondra M. Nieto-Arredondo. She was the school's winner of an essay contest sponsored by the "Breaking Barriers" program under the auspices of Major League Baseball, Scholastic and Sharon Robinson. There were about 18,600 essay entries nationally, 160 from Washington Middle School.

Sharon Robinson immediately engaged the students, involving them as she stressed the importance of not allowing barriers to interfere with the goals and ambitions through her own struggles as a young person in search of "self love." There was an incident of abuse with a high school boyfriend and coming to grips with "racial isolation" earlier in her school life.

More recently, she has dealt with open-heart surgery -- "putting work ahead of my physical health," she said -- and her separation from a grandchild for three years after the child was born in Brazil, the homeland of her son's wife.

Sharon Robinson's multifaceted personal history gives her all sorts of insights into the personal challenges faced by young people.

"I've written a number of kids' books," said Ms. Robinson, whose most recent effort is "Jackie Robinson: American Hero." Educated at Howard and Columbia universities, she taught "at colleges here" in the Los Angeles area along with serving as nurse and midwife for 23 years "in San Francisco, Los Angeles, all over."

Employed by Major League Baseball the past 16 years, her passion is the Jackie Robinson Foundation, with offices in New York City. Her mother, Rachel Robinson, continues to work there and has passed along her boundless energy and sense of commitment to her daughter. A Robinson museum is planned for Lower Manhattan, with the foundation seeking financial backing.

"She refuses to stop," Sharon said of her mother, who met Jackie when they were undergraduate students at UCLA. "She'll come visit me, spend two weeks in Florida, and say, 'OK, time to get back to work.'"

Kemp, the Dodgers' great center fielder, told of growing up in Oklahoma, how he had to ignore the taunts of fellow students in high school when he'd carry around his baseball cleats and glove. He also played football and basketball, but baseball wasn't considered cool.

Despite the hard time he was getting from peers, "I wouldn't let anything get in the way of my desire to play Major League Baseball," Kemp said. "Today I'm a Major League baseball player living my dream -- and I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Jackie Robinson and his courage."

A two-time National League batting champion, Brooklyn native Davis related how a phone conversation with Jackie Robinson steered him away from the Yankees and into the Dodgers' organization as a high school star.

Davis emphasized to the youngsters the necessity of "getting your education. That's No. 1."

Sharon Robinson fondly recalled her youth in Stamford, Conn., Thanksgiving gatherings, along with family football and baseball games in the front yard.

"We had these big boulders that couldn't be moved," she said. "One was home plate; another was first baseball. We had some fun games on that front lawn in Stamford. Thanksgiving was boys against men in football. Dad loved football. But he had a knee injury playing semi-pro football in Hawaii after college, and it was a problem for the rest of his life.

"We had some good days there ... and some tough memories."

Family members were in attendance at the Washington Middle School assembly hall, beaming throughout the presentation.

Rose Robinson, daughter of Mack, Jackie's older brother, brought along sons Dennis and Marshawn. Mack Robinson never lost a race at 200 meters until he finished second to teammate Jesse Owens at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin -- "because his shoes didn't fit right," Rose recalled.

A graphics designer, Dennis was accompanied by fiancée Yevette Pounds, whose great grandfather, Robert Pounds, was one of the first African-American basketball players at UCLA -- following in the wake of Jackie's four-sport magnificence as a Bruin.

"I was 8 years old when the Dodgers retired Jackie's number [in 1972] in a ceremony at Dodger Stadium," Rose said. "I remember that day very clearly, how exciting it was. We were on our way to Connecticut, Dad driving, when [Jackie] passed. I remember Roberto Flack singing at the service and Rev. Jesse Jackson giving the eulogy."

Family members have seen "42," Rose Robinson said, finding the movie "excellent ... and very emotional."

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for