RINDGE — Fifty years ago last month, Franklin Pierce College — as it was called at the time — hosted a visitor students would not soon forget.
In 1969, the college awarded an honorary degree to Jackie Robinson, who had famously broken the “color barrier” in Major League Baseball 22 years earlier. Franklin Pierce commemorated the anniversary of his visit at its annual academic showcase last month.
Robert Hannings, a staff member at the university, organized an exhibit for the occasion featuring vintage baseball equipment and memorabilia. Hannings is a baseball historian and enthusiast, but he never knew Robinson had visited Franklin Pierce until he caught a glimpse of the player in a documentary clip about the university’s first 50 years.
Through further research, he learned Franklin Pierce was one of only five institutions to confer an honorary degree on Robinson in his lifetime, and other people recognized that year included psychologist and television personality Joyce Brothers and attorney F. Lee Bailey.
But Robinson being honored was especially notable, he said.
“It’s really remarkable that we were that progressive to do that,” said Hannings, who is a maintenance worker at the university. “I’m still trying to get to the bottom of who was the connection, who actually got him here. So that’s where my research continues.”
After digging into the university’s archives, Hannings found old black and white photos of Robinson on campus, along with programs from that year’s commencement ceremony and senior banquet. But perhaps the most valuable find was a copy of Robinson’s acceptance speech.
“It gave me goosebumps to read that speech, and also (made me) proud that Franklin Pierce had the connection, had the smarts, to invite somebody with that kind of power and influence,” Hannings said. “And I think that kind of entrepreneurship has really done the school well over the years, too.”
The academic showcase committee organized to have Franklin Pierce alumnus Michael Brown, class of 2012, perform excerpts of the speech at last month’s event, according to Gerald Burns, an English professor at the university and a member of the committee.
A vintage baseball game, played by 19th-century rules, was also planned for that day, but was canceled due to weather.
According to Burns, who condensed the speech and introduced Brown at the showcase, the commemoration was possible purely through happenstance.
“This had slipped down; it was an unremembered event. 1969 is a long time ago, so there’s hardly anyone — I don’t believe anyone — here now who was with the university at that point,” Burns said. “So memories had grown dim and faded away altogether. And when we found this out, it just seemed like a lucky stroke.”
This year marks not only 50 years since Robinson visited Franklin Pierce, but also 100 years since his birth. Burns noted that his appearance on the Rindge campus was remarkable for several reasons, not the least of which that Franklin Pierce had been educating students for only six years at the time.
But it was also notable because of the time in history — soon after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and amid splintering in the civil rights movement.
“If you listen carefully to these words, you can hear pretty much all of those voices in there, in what he said on this occasion,” Burns said. “I thought it was probably a very extraordinary moment, and I think with Michael Brown’s rendition, we were able to kind of create another extraordinary moment, especially for Franklin Pierce, in this manner.”
Class of ’69 member Dan Sansevieri, who now splits his time between Naples, Fla., and Blue Ridge, Ga., remembers Robinson’s visit to the college well. In fact, he introduced him during that year’s senior banquet and had the opportunity to speak with him throughout the evening.
He recalls that Robinson asked him about his plans for the future and seemed very intelligent and down to earth. Sansevieri said he was struck by the depth of Robinson’s speech.
“That was a tumultuous time. There were riots in the streets, with the Vietnam War there were riots, there was the racial issues, and he hit it head on,” Sansevieri said. “As I recall in his speech, he addressed it head on.”
Robinson, who died less than three years later, began his address with the biblical story of Job, connecting Job’s resilience in the face of adversity to that of his own people.
“There is not a single black person in these United States that ‘has it made’ until the most under-privileged black person has it made, and we intend to pursue our goals in this country,” Robinson told the graduating class. “... As Jackie Robinson, I have led an unusual life, but as a black man in America, it is like any other black man.”
Though Sansevieri won’t be able to attend this year’s commencement, some members of the class of 1969 plan to return to campus for the event. The alumni are also planning a 50th reunion in June, Sansevieri said, where they will likely commemorate the anniversary of the ceremony and Robinson’s visit.
Robinson’s speech stuck with him — and likely with his classmates, too.
“I sense that there were people in the audience that were adversarial toward him,” Sansevieri said, “and I got the feeling that Jackie Robinson was looking toward our age group, the college graduates, to change America for the better.”