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"One big reason for that is the mentoring and the way the foundation supports you," says Reginald Livingston, who won a JRF scholarship in 1992, was a finance major at Georgetown and is now a commercial Realtor in New York City. "In my years we went to Rachel's house and sat with her and other members of the board. They listened to us, advised us, challenged us. The foundation opens you up to possibilities.
"But there's another reason why so many of us do well in school. When you apply for a scholarship you make it your business to learn about Jackie Robinson. That leads you to learn about Rachel and the family. You understand what that family went through. Suddenly your problems in freshman econ don't seem as daunting."
Coleman, who has chaired the foundation since 1996, adds this, "Every kid in this program has the chance to meet and interact with Rachel. That may seem like a small piece but it is not. They become part of the family. And then what are they going to do? No one wants to let down Rachel Robinson."
Norman Siegel, a career civil rights lawyer who has been involved with the foundation since 1976, recalls how through the 1980s and '90s he often pushed to have the organization take on political and civil rights issues. Once he wanted to sue Major League Baseball for its lack of minority representation in the front offices. Siegel believed he had a strong case and the board was behind him. Rachel wasn't having it. "All along I've wanted us to be focused—educating these young people to make a difference," she says. "I felt if we did one thing really well instead of spreading ourselves thin, that was our best chance at social change."
Since 2004 the foundation, with its full-time 20-person staff and scores of volunteers, has been led by president and CEO Della Britton Baeza. But Rachel comes regularly to the office, approves major decisions, answers letters, goes on fund-raising calls. Books and photographs surround her workspace. Here are Rachel and Jackie on their wedding day; here's Rachel in the stands for Jackie's historic debut at Ebbets Field, infant Jackie Jr. bundled up on her lap; here's Jackie, several times, sliding into home. You can find on the shelves replicas of some of the hate mail and death threats that Jackie received and also see pictures of him surrounded by throngs of white fans seeking his autograph. Now here's the family together, the three children young; here's Jackie picketing on behalf of the NAACP in the 1960s; here are Jackie and Rachel with Martin Luther King Jr.
Rachel's favorite of the wall photographs shows her and Jackie in the late '60s at one of the Afternoon of Jazz fund-raising concerts the Robinsons held each June on the lawn of their Connecticut home. (Artists such as Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie performed, and the first profits went for bail money to free jailed civil rights protesters.) The Robinsons are lying eyes half closed, smiling, blissful in one another's arms. Rachel continues to protect Jackie, determining how his name and likeness is used. It's why you've never seen an official Jackie Robinson bobblehead doll—despite suggestions by baseball and the Dodgers that they produce one. "If there's one thing that man always had, it was dignity," Rachel said last month. Then, smiling and jiggling her head in bobblehead fashion, she added, "I could not see Jack's head bouncing around like this."
Rachel is determined that Jackie not be seen as a martyr, that for all the difficulty of his journey, his was finally a life of fortune, happiness and success. It's a message she hopes writer-director Brian Helgeland has absorbed for his film on Robinson, 42, set for a 2013 release. (It will star Chadwick Boseman as Jackie, Nicole Beharie as Rachel, Harrison Ford as Dodgers G.M. Branch Rickey.) Rachel is an active consultant on the script. "She does what she does when I give her a book," says Jackie and Rachel's daughter, Sharon, 62, the author of a candid family memoir as well as several children's books. "She makes a big pile of notes. She calls them 'suggestions.' " Rachel's most ambitious idea in recent years has been the Jackie Robinson Museum, set to be located next to the foundation. The museum will be dedicated not only to his life but also, per Rachel's instruction, to the history of African-Americans. "Not just a place of archives, but one where people can convene, a destination," she says. "We'll have areas where you can run conferences or have small group meetings. It should be a living tribute. There's a lot to do to get this going but I plan to be there when we open."
For her 75th birthday, in 1997, Rachel and about a dozen family members—she has 12 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren—climbed to 10,000 feet on Mount Kilimanjaro. Her son David lives in Tanzania, where he runs a coffee co-op not far from the base of the mountain, and Rachel still visits once or twice a year. She says she plans to do another climb in honor of her 90th in July and has been recruiting family and friends to come. "I can't see her actually doing that at this stage," says Sharon. "Of course she has surprised me before...."
In December 2010, Rachel fell and broke her hip. She refused to do her walker-aided rehab in public, keeping near her apartment. "If we had to go out in the wheelchair she put on a scarf and sunglasses. She didn't want anyone to see her," says Sharon. Two months after the fall Sharon coaxed Rachel to go to a restaurant in Connecticut. Sharon parked and went to the back of the car to get the wheelchair. "There was a walk and then a long ramp going up to the front door," Sharon recalls. "But she refused the chair. She hadn't walked anywhere yet. I said. 'Come on, Mom, there's no way you can walk.' She looked at me and said, 'I'm walking.' And she did."
"Two things she does not like," says Edelman, whom Rachel describes as her best friend. "She hates arrogance in anyone. And she can't stand weakness." Edelman recalls noticing, a decade ago or so, that Rachel intently watched whenever an older person walked by with a stooped gait: "I asked what she was doing, and she said she wanted to make sure she never walked that way. She said, 'It gives them a bad attitude. You've got to keep your back straight.' "