FEATURE

A League of Her Own

Sharon Robinson '76NRS delivers on her father's legacy.

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2017
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In 1987, while at PUSH, Sharon spoke to Ebony magazine for an article about whether having a famous name helps or hurts. In it, Sharon disclosed that she had gotten engaged in high school because she wanted to change her name. “I didn’t realize it at that point,” she said, “but I wanted to be anonymous.” She kept her married name at Howard to avoid preferential treatment; it was imperative that she make it on her own. And having seen what Jackie Jr. had gone through — the constant, impossible comparisons — she had declined to name her son Jack. But she soon reclaimed her Robinson name. As she told Ebony: “Once you integrate it into your total being, it is a major asset, especially in my case, because my father had a great deal of respect from all kinds of people.” The Ebony writer told her she ought to write a book about her life.

And so Sharon began carrying around a pad, jotting down thoughts. “I wasn’t sure it would ever be a book; I was just writing and doing research on what it means to be abused by your spouse,” she says. “Then I figured if I could write that part, I could write anything.”

Her memoir, Stealing Home, came out in 1996 from Harper-Collins. In it, she discussed her childhood, her family life, the difficulties that came with integrating her all-white school and neighborhood, her marriages, her father’s politics, and her parents’ partnership. She has since published two young-adult novels and seven children’s books.

She plans to write at least one more.

 

In 1997, the golden jubilee of Jackie Robinson’s history-shaping appearance on a ball field, Sharon attended the ceremony at a Mets-Dodgers game at Shea Stadium. Her son threw out the first ball, and her mother and President Clinton gave speeches. That same year, Sharon joined Major League Baseball as vice president of educational programming, teaming up with the publisher Scholastic to create a program for character development in children. After twenty years in nursing, Sharon was ready for her next chapter. Her program, Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life, was born.

“We introduce kids to nine values that I associate with my dad’s success on and off the field: courage, determination, teamwork, persistence, integrity, citizenship, justice, commitment, and excellence,” Sharon says. “We use those values to provide strategies to help kids overcome obstacles in their lives.” The curriculum includes an essay contest, for which two grand-prize winners are honored at the All-Star Game and the World Series.

Sharon is also vice chair of the Jackie Robinson Foundation (JRF), a scholarship program for low-income students of color that her mother founded in 1973. Martin Edelman ’66LAW is cofounder and secretary. The chair is Gregg Gonsalves ’89SEAS, who attended Columbia as a Jackie Robinson Scholar.

“The JRF is my mom’s baby,” Sharon says. “She is very powerful and self-directed, and very clear in what she wants to accomplish. She doesn’t take on something that she’s not going to push to be successful.”

This spring, the JRF broke ground on the Jackie Robinson Museum, scheduled to open in SoHo in 2019. It won’t be just artifacts and baseball. “There’s no civil-rights museum in New York City,” Sharon says. “We feel this museum will fill that gap, and we’re excited to get it done in my mother’s lifetime.”

Though Sharon is dedicated to this work, she’s also looking ahead. “My mother is ninety-four, and I’m very much supporting her during this phase of her life,” she says. “But I know it’s important I figure out my next phase.”

 

The essays for the Breaking Barriers contest are about facing adversity, and many of them center on illness — a topic Sharon knows well. She has lupus (an autoimmune inflammatory disease) and high blood pressure. In 2008 she had a double bypass.

Around that time, Jesse, then twenty-nine, got sick and fell into a coma for two weeks. He was diagnosed with adult-onset type 1 diabetes, like his grandfather. “It runs in my father’s family in the males,” says Sharon. “They get a very virulent form of diabetes and heart disease. It had skipped a generation with my brother, and I knew my son was going to get it. I just knew.”

Though Jesse survived the coma, his symptoms worsened. In 2013, he had a heart attack, which proved fatal. He was thirty-four.

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