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Inspiring Then, Inspiring Still

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a shelf behind a desk in Daron Campbell’s plush Encino office sits a well-worn copy of a book titled “I Never Had It Made.”

It’s the same book that Laurie Dickey displays proudly in her Westchester apartment and that nearly 400 other top high school scholars have mined for wisdom and strength over the past 20 years.

“It moves you,” Dickey says. “It inspires you.”

And, like its author, it apparently changes everyone it touches. The book is the 1972 autobiography of Jackie Robinson, who, in a life cut short by a heart attack at 53, managed to integrate both professional baseball and the top ranks of the Republican Party; campaigned for civil rights and half a dozen presidential candidates; and pried open the doors of business and high finance to people of color.

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“Jackie Robinson beat down doors in a lot of places almost simultaneously,” says Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP and a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “I think he will be remembered primarily as a ballplayer and for breaking the color barrier . . . but we have to focus on the totality of Jackie Robinson and all that he accomplished, all that he did.

“He had to be twice as good just to be proven equal. And he did it with grace and dignity.”

Nearly 24 years after his death--and just months away from the 50th anniversary of his groundbreaking major league debut--Robinson’s legacy continues to reach from the ball field to the boardroom, providing opportunities for politicians and pitchers as well as bankers and bakers.

But Robinson, the grandson of a slave, did far more than just break down barriers for others: He challenged people to overcome obstacles of their own. So at a time when affirmative action and other gains of the civil rights struggle are under attack, Robinson’s quiet dignity, courage and leadership continue to serve as an inspiration to people of all races.

“Just about every week somebody stops me and . . . what they want to do is tell me their story,” says Rachel Robinson, his widow. “And their stories--it’s like Jack has had some impact on their lives that doesn’t have anything to do with baseball. What they want to say is how they drew something from his life and his behavior.

“One of the things he was very clear about was that being the first was wonderful, but it didn’t mean anything unless there was a second and a third and a fourth. He would get excitement from just any breakthrough. He would not have said [it was because] of his breakthrough or his behavior. But it somehow was connected, I think.”

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Those connections--from the bitter racism Jackie experienced growing up in Pasadena, to his record-setting four-sport careers at Pasadena Junior College and UCLA, through the triumph of his induction into the baseball Hall of Fame--are retraced by Rachel Robinson in an emotional look back titled “Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait” (Harry N. Abrams), expected in Southland bookstores next week.

In June, daughter Sharon Robinson released “Stealing Home” (HarperCollins), a painfully frank memoir that paints an admiring portrait of her father while at the same time recounting the toll his life’s mission took on her family.

In an attempt to get out from under the considerable shadow her father cast, Sharon was engaged at 17, a battered wife at 18 and divorced at 19. “I think I was looking for a way to escape,” she says now. “It changed my name. I could kind of go into obscurity and try to figure who I was.”

She married three more times--and divorced twice more--before finally finding that peace. And at that she was luckier than older brother Jackie Jr., a talented athlete who was so intimidated by his father’s fame that he gave up organized sports as a youngster and ran away to the Army as a teenager. Jackie Jr. returned from Vietnam a junkie and then, shortly after kicking his addiction, died in a 1971 auto accident. A younger brother, David, lives in Tanzania, where he owns a coffee farm.

The Robinsons’ books are simply the opening volley of what’s sure to become a fusillade of Robinson retrospectives between now and April 15, the 50th anniversary of his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Another book and at least two movies are in the works, and Sharon Robinson worries that her father’s true persona could be lost in the flood of revisionist histories.

“Forget trying to define my father by how other people defined him. Let’s look at this words,” she cautions. “And in his words you look at that one statement he made: A life is only important in the impact it has on others. It wasn’t about a baseball legacy or getting trophies or anything like that. It was about the next generation being committed to serving other people.”

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The house where Jackie Robinson grew up was razed long ago, part of an urban renewal project that did little to renew the tired neighborhoods of northwest Pasadena. In its place a simple plaque, often covered with dirt, remembers a family that once lived in a house that no longer exists.

Pepper Street is now a dead end, an unintentionally symbolic change intended to deter the drug dealers and common thieves that roam the same avenues where Robinson once played. Across from the plaque a housing project has sprung up, separating the old neighborhood from the Jackie Robinson Community Center and Jackie Robinson Park, which straddle Fair Oaks Boulevard north of the Foothill Freeway. These have become home to everything from AIDS screenings and child vaccinations to community softball games and birthday parties.

It’s fitting that Pasadena should remember Robinson with a memorial that provides service to the community. After all, Pasadena is not just the town where Robinson grew up--it’s also the place that inspired his thirst for justice and equality.

“I don’t think he felt resentment toward Pasadena [but] he certainly learned about racism and segregation living with his experiences in Pasadena,” Sharon says. “I think it all kind of prepared him for his later mission.”

Ray Bartlett, a close childhood friend and college teammate of Jackie Robinson’s, remembers the bad old days.

“There was a lot of discrimination and prejudice when we were growing up,” he says. “And some of it we didn’t understand. [But] as we got older, we began to realize it was a discriminatory setup and a racial prejudice.”

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So while Robinson fought for equality in the national spotlight, Bartlett attacked racism on the local level. In 1947, the same year Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, Bartlett became just the second African American to join the Pasadena Police Department, ending decades of exclusionary policies in one of Southern California’s most segregated cities. Before that, he had volunteered at the local YMCA, which allowed blacks to clean the facilities but not to use them. Years later, Bartlett would serve as president of the Pasadena YMCA’s corporate board.

But while Bartlett says Robinson’s courage and dignity inspired him, the two friends rarely discussed weighty topics such as racism while they were growing up.

“My mom used to tell us it’ll all change one day. We didn’t believe her then [but] I felt that things could be changed through the system. That’s what I worked for. I think my presence in working in various groups in Pasadena helped make a change.”

Bartlett still works with a variety of community groups in Pasadena, though he now lives in Monrovia, a white-majority town that recently elected its first black mayor--Ray’s son, Bob.

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Pasadena is just one of several dozen cities with a park and a ball field named for Robinson. A number of other locales have christened schools, pools and housing projects in his name. In South-Central Los Angeles, there’s even an American Legion post dedicated to the World War II veteran.

And while some have argued for years that his hometown’s monuments to him were too modest and too far from Pasadena’s celebrated center, next spring a $300,000 tribute to Robinson and his brother Mack--a medal-winning sprinter in the 1936 Olympic Games--will be unveiled in Centennial Place, across the street from City Hall. But while parks and ball fields--and even legion posts--make nice memorials, family and longtime friends agree that the most fitting way to honor Jackie Robinson’s memory would be to complete the work he started.

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“My father did not preach. He taught a lot, but he did not preach,” says Sharon, now 46 and a nurse midwife in Norwalk, Conn. “He didn’t just say you have to serve others. He just went out and served.”

And for those wishing to follow that quiet legacy, there’s a lot left to be done.

“Don’t look at how far we’ve come, but look at how far we still have to go,” says Rachel Robinson, quoting the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. “There’s no denying there’s been progress. We don’t have to ride on the back of the bus.

“[But] even where we’ve made progress, there are forces at work always to pull us back. Affirmative action, for instance, was an important progressive step and it has had some important impact. But it is now a political football, and the effort to undo and to do away with it is, in my mind, a retrenchment on the part of society.”

True to his words, Jackie Robinson continues serving the generations that have followed him a quarter-century after his death. The New York-based Jackie Robinson Foundation, established by Rachel Robinson just months after her husband’s death, has helped hundreds of African Americans secure the education and the contacts they need to succeed in business, law, medicine and dozens of other fields, changing forever the lives of young people like Daron Campbell and Laurie Dickey and the 400 other scholars who have won Jackie Robinson Foundation awards in the past two decades.

As winners of foundation scholarships--funded largely through corporate donations--the students receive $20,000 tuition grants, career counseling . . . and copies of “I Never Had It Made.” But they’ve also been anointed with great expectations, which may be the most important gift of all.

“It’s not just about money at all,” says Dickey, a 28-year-old UCLA graduate. “It’s something very special and it does change your life. It leaves you feeling like you can and you should do everything you can in this life.

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“Jackie Robinson’s legacy of service and commitment is really something that they incorporate into the foundation. I think he’s just one of the most overlooked heroes of our time. I mean, he wasn’t simply an incredible athlete. He broke barriers and he worked tirelessly for civil rights. He was up against so much and yet he dealt with it with dignity and composure and intelligence. That is a moving story.

“He was a role model and he left an incredible legacy of commitment to the community.” It’s an example Dickey has taken to heart, giving up a possible law career to become a bilingual grade-school teacher in South-Central Los Angeles.

For Campbell, another 28-year-old UCLA grad, Robinson’s story inspired a rapid climb to a six-figure salary as a real estate investment broker.

“He was a perfectionist as far as every aspect of his life was concerned. There were no obstacles he thought he couldn’t overcome,” Campbell says. “Rather than wallow in all of the disadvantages, he just decided to step out and make the most of what he had.”

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