Stan Hochman | Jackie scholars are his living legacy

Posted: April 12, 2007

DEIDRE LITTLEJOHN, a Temple sophomore, mentors elementary-school kids in North Philly. Teaches them history. Says, "If you don't know where you've been, you can't know where you're going."

Adam Franklin, a Penn senior, is a Big Brother to a boy at Shaw Middle School. Teague O'Connor, a math major at Saint Joseph's, is active with HAWKS (Helping And Watching Kids Succeed).

What do they have in common? You mean besides knowing that Jackie Robinson stole home 19 times; that Robinson was born in Cairo, Ga.; that he played all four sports at UCLA; and that he was subjected to a court-martial when he wouldn't move to the back of a half-empty bus while in the U.S. Army?

They are all Jackie Robinson Foundation scholars, and will be honored Sunday when the Phillies celebrate the 60th

anniversary of Robinson breaking major league baseball's outrageous color line.

They are all getting help from sponsors that ranges up to $7,200 a year for 4 years. They are minority students who scored in the stratospheric 1,300s on the SAT, had dazzling grades in high school, demonstrated leadership qualities and have a burning desire to give back to the community.

"One of the first questions they're asked in the interview phase," says Della Britton Baeza, president of JRF, "is, 'What do you know about Jackie Robinson?' And when we bring them together for the annual networking gathering in New York, there's a little game, actually a session, of fact-finding."

Baeza is a fascinating story herself. Daughter of a white mom and a black dad, she grew up in Pittsburgh in a family that adored the Pirates. "One of six kids, the only girl," she recalls, chuckling. "We had season tickets to the Pirates games. Clemente, Mazeroski, Stargell . . . loved the Pirates.

"But when Jackie Robinson was on television, my dad would summon us all into the living room to watch. He'd say, 'Jackie Robinson is royalty.' I was a kid, I associated royalty with a crown, a sceptre. Now I know, he was talking about the way Jackie and Rachel Robinson conducted their lives, the approach they took, the high road.

"The year after Jackie died [in 1972], Rachel established this foundation, to perpetuate his view that education was the way to authentic integration. We get 4,000 applications for those scholarships now and choose 50 to 100 a year. We're looking for students who exemplify character and a sense of community spirit. We want them not just to succeed, but to excel."

There are 266 scholars attending 93

colleges in 33 states. The graduation rate is 97 percent. About 20 are enrolled in Philadelphia schools. What they do, in the classrooms, in the neighborhoods, is breathtaking. The legacy of Jackie Robinson is alive and well in Philadelphia.

"Most everybody knows he was a great ballplayer," says Deidre Littlejohn, who has her own online radio show, Brown Girl Radio. "But he was also a civil-rights activist, a businessman, a philanthropist. Accepting the scholarship carries with it showing leadership qualities. I look around, I see people doing awesome things. It makes me want to step up my game."

Deidre has game. She is part of Congresso, a leadership development program. "There's a day when 1,000 Temple students go out into the community," she says proudly. "We look for singers, songwriters, to use our voices to get across positive messages.

"I think I'm working hard and then I go to New York, to the networking sessions and I see a guy from NYU. He knew how hard it was for teenagers to find summer-intern jobs, so he took it on himself to make the calls, send the e-mails and he found 60 jobs for kids. Sixty!"

Adam Franklin squeezed in his March sessions at the networking between weekend games that clinched the Ivy League basketball title and the traditional Tuesday game with Princeton that ends the regular season.

Although he didn't get to play in Penn's one-and-done NCAA game against Texas A & M, Franklin says he has no regrets about his time at the university after transferring from North Carolina. "No regrets," he says. "I got a great education, I improved, practicing against great players."

Adam, a finance major, is the son of Cleveland Franklin, a running back who played for the Eagles in the late '70s. He is one of a handful of scholar-athletes who qualified for a JRF scholarship, because the academic workload and the intense

demands of varsity athletics

seldom leave time for community involvement.

"I lead church services with my mom once a month," he says. "I visit nursing homes and interact with the people living there. I enjoy cooking and I've worked with people preparing meals for needy families. And I'm in my third year as a Big Brother, working with a student at Shaw."

Teague O'Connor's dad died when he was young. His parents had moved from Jamaica and settled in Hartford, Conn. "My mom worked two or three jobs to keep the family together," O'Connor recalls. "She said she was doing it so that we wouldn't have to."

Teague is a sophomore at Saint Joseph's University and he can tell you what the weather is going to be on Memorial Day. "I grew up studying clouds and trying to predict the weather," he says. "Now, I'm more and more into mathematics, leaning towards becoming an actuary.

"I was part of a summer science program and fell in love with the Philadelphia area, which is why

I chose Saint Joseph's. I love the historical aspects of the city. In Hartford, some historic buildings are being bulldozed.

"The first time I attended the JRF networking sessions in New York, I was breathless. The career clinics were amazing. And I was shocked, shocked in a good sense, to hear about a student

doing community service in my hometown, Hartford, while attending Fordham in New York. I asked him how he handles the commuting and he said, 'Mind over matter.'

"HAWKS is a program in its fourth year. We mentor elementary-school students. We provide support, we urge them to stay focused, to stay away from drugs, to avoid peer pressure."

In the ongoing struggle to raise funds, Della Britton Baeza takes time out to cherish the glow of special moments. "One of our scholars came up to me in a conference room," she recalls. "He asked if he could talk to me. We met later and he reached into his pocket for a check.

"He had been hired by Verizon and he said he had learned about giving back from us. He handed me a check and asked that I not cash it until Sept. 9, the date he'd be getting his first paycheck.

"I looked at it and it was for $100. It broke my heart. Every time I tell the story I well up."

Only five major league teams sponsor a JRF scholar. The Yawkey Foundation is considering a seven-figure contribution to a civil-rights museum in Manhattan. Which is interesting, because the Red Sox were the last team to integrate. The Phillies were the last National League team to sign an African-American, and that was 10 years after the Dodgers signed Robinson.

"Wouldn't it be nice," Baeza asks sweetly, "if the Phillies agreed to sponsor a scholar?"

Wouldn't it? *

Send e-mail to stanrhoch@verizon.net

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