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Sharing a hero's values in print


There was Jackie Robinson, the baseball player. And then there was Jackie Robinson, symbol of the color barrier and an icon of the civil rights movement.

There is Sharon Robinson, who was only 6 years old when her father retired from baseball. And then there is Sharon Robinson, keeper of the flame.

Being the child of a legend is a full-time job for Sharon Robinson. Literally. She has worked for Major League Baseball since 1997 as director of educational programming.

As such, she travels the country teaching schoolchildren the values her father lived. The program, called "Breaking Barriers, In Sports, In Life," is done with the help of professional athletes who testify to the obstacles they have had to overcome in their own lives.

Recently, Robinson spoke, along with the Baltimore Orioles' Jerry Hairston, at Freetown Elementary School in Glen Burnie.

We caught up with Robinson at another stop on a national tour promoting the new book that has emerged from her program, "Jackie's Nine: Jackie Robinson's Values to Live By" (Scholastic Inc., $15.95).

In it, she describes her father's sustaining values: courage, determination, teamwork, persistence, integrity, citizenship, justice, commitment, and excellence. The book illustrates these ideals with essays written by both Sharon and Jackie Robinson, as well as by her mother, Rachel, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, sportswriter Roger Kahn and others.

Though the essayists are best known to adults, it is the kind of easy summer reading teens and pre-teens might be willing to tackle.

Who do you see as the audience for this book? Kids or grown-up sports fans?

Both. I see it as an adult and children's book. It is an inspirational book for both. It was designed for kids, but it is adults who are authors of the essays. And the adults that have read it have found it inspirational, too.

Sports has always taught lessons. But athletes seem to have fallen off the pedestal as teachers. How should children, and their parents, look at professional athletes and what should they expect from them?

Look at them as people. I ask the athletes I work with to talk to children about an obstacle in their lives and what they have done to overcome them. I ask them not to be on a pedestal. For example, Bo Porter [of the Texas Rangers] told a group of children in Dallas that he stuttered as a child and as a result of the embarrassment, he started to act out and he got in trouble at home and at school. But his mother got him into speech therapy and by fifth grade it was over, and so was his bad behavior.

At Freetown, Hairston talked about his grandfather's dying and how hard that was because he was so close to him. He told the children that he just focuses on his memories of his grandfather and all the things they did when he was alive. His grandfather taught him to always set goals, work hard to achieve them, but to always have an alternative.

Even though Jerry always sensed that he would be a professional baseball player [his father, grandfather and uncle were professional players], he knew he had to go to college. He told the children he never uses the expression "something to fall back on." He just talks about "alternatives."

When your father realized that he wasn't just a baseball player anymore, that he was a symbol of integration, did it change his feelings for the game?

He loved the game. Everything I have heard from my mother is that, when he played it, he loved it. He was very competitive. He had a fire. But I think my father was one of those former players who was able to say, "It is a game, and that part of my life is essentially over."

When my father left the game, the civil rights movement was really heating up. He was no longer an athlete, he was a celebrity and a role model. But he was able to use that status for something he really believed in.

Did your mother ever feel left out, in the shadow of this great man?

She felt very much his partner. And my father knew he could not do what he had to do without her. They had a strong partnership and she had a defined role and they were doing it together.

During his baseball career, she gave her time to her husband and family. But when we were school age, she wanted her own identity, and it was a shock to the family. She went to graduate school in psychiatric nursing and went into group relations work and she was on the faculty at Yale University and director of its community health center. That's what she was doing when my father died.

Your son is 22. Which of Jackie's nine values is toughest for a young person to learn?

I think it is a combination of integrity and commitment. Young people have to understand the values and feel them strongly in order to hold onto them. And sometimes they don't know what the words mean, until you give them an example. I think that's true of my son, as well. Whether they are moving from middle school into high school or high school into adulthood, they have to understand what these values mean and they have to work to hold onto them.

Is "Jackie's Nine" a book just for African-American children?

Absolutely not. And neither is the "Breaking Barriers" program. We all have barriers and obstacles to overcome. My father's values are about how to survive no matter what happens in your life.

Most kids don't have a man like Jackie Robinson as a father. And some kids don't have a father at all. What would you say to these children about fathers as heroes?

My son didn't have his father in his home, either. But there were men in his life who had an impact ... When he was 4 or 5 years old, the man across the street, who had a tremendous rose garden, called him over and gave him a rose. He said, "Give this to your mother because that is what sons do on Mother's Day." There can always be men like that in a child's life.

Which of Jackie's nine values means the most to you?

The one that has the most tender place in my heart is commitment. I can give you all kinds of ways that I have used the other values. But commitment is the one I have struggled with the most. Not with my child or my family or my education or my work. My struggle is for a solid relationship. I feel so close to this value, but it is the one I struggle with most.

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