The Late Jackie Robinson’s Legacy Lives On Through Alumnus’ Lens

By Marty Dobrow | Summer 2016

It was a double play 54 years in the making.

When Springfield College hosted a pre-screening of Ken Burns’ documentary Jackie Robinson on April 7—four days before the national premiere on PBS—it represented a homecoming of sorts. After all, the late baseball and civil rights icon had been here before.

On Aug. 16, 1962, Robinson was the keynote speaker at a celebration on the campus. That day marked the 100th birthday of another athletic legend, Amos Alonzo Stagg. The man for whom our football field is now named, Stagg lived an outsized life. He played in the first basketball game, coached football here (and kept coaching until the age of 84), earned induction in both the College Football and Basketball Hall of Fame, and lived until 102. His centennial celebration featured Robinson: the man who had famously broken the color line in Major League Baseball in 1947. In July 1962, a few weeks before appearing on campus, Robinson was inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Hasselblad camera

The primary audience consisted of youth sports teams, since in mid-August few Springfield students were around. But one recent alum, Spero Coulacos ’59, was there with his camera to take the shot of a lifetime. Coulacos watched Robinson conversing with Springfield President Glenn Olds prior to the event and noted his animation every time he said the word “kids.” He waited for his moment with his press camera, then pounced. Years later, he wrote, “I had it! I had it on film—his life’s struggle, his passion, his spirit, his soul. I never took another shot all evening. I just wanted to get into the darkroom. After developing the film, I held the wet negative up to the light. Euphoria! Never again would I experience a moment like that in a darkroom.”

Robinson considered the photograph the finest ever taken of him out of uniform. It was later displayed in the Smithsonian Institution and at the Baseball Hall of Fame. For almost 20 years, it had been hanging on a wall on the second floor of Babson Library by the bathrooms, escaping the notice of almost everyone. (Robinson died in 1972 at just 53. Coulacos passed away in 2013 at 80.)

When Springfield was approached about this film opportunity by two associates of Ken Burns—Lorenzo Gaines and Artemis Joukowsky—the photo’s magic was reclaimed. It was displayed at the screening, and now lives in an office in the Division of Inclusion and Community Engagement, the perfect fit for a man who lived his remarkable life in exactly that spirit.