Robinson took his status and responsibility seriously. “I learned a long time ago that a person must be true to himself if he is to succeed,” he wrote to young Ronnie.
In the 1950s Robinson was a Republican, largely because the Democratic Party was run by Southerners who resisted civil rights. As the 1960 election approached, he let Ronnie know how he felt about Kennedy, who had voted against the 1957 Civil Rights Act.
“I imagine your dad is about ready to get involved in the drive for the presidency,” Robinson wrote. “At this time it looks like Kennedy has a chance, which in my opinion would mean the Democrats would get the smallest Negro vote in the history of the party.”
Dave Rabinovitz had met the Kennedys a few years earlier. He was instrumental in convincing the Massachusetts senator to enter the Wisconsin primary, which then carried much more significance than it does today. He believed that if Kennedy could defeat Hubert Humphrey in the Minnesota senator’s back yard, it would greatly influence the party convention.
As JFK campaigned, young Ronnie was in the thick of it. Kennedy rarely ate the cold dinners on the rubber-chicken banquet circuit.
“He’d say to me, ‘Ronnie, go down to the kitchen and get me the usual.’ The usual was a peanut butter sandwich, a cup of clam chowder and a beer.”
Rabinovitz showed off a letter dated May 23, 1960, from Kennedy to Dave Rabinovitz:
“Please convey my thanks to Ronnie for his superb work in distributing literature and pins as well as for his efforts in furthering my cause in connection with the North High School mock election.”
Making it into a play
Simonson, a born and bred cheesehead from Milwaukee, was a natural choice when Peluso wanted a playwright for the Rabinovitz story. The task, though, was daunting. How do you make drama from a series of correspondence and a brush with political history? Simonson’s first draft didn’t even mention Kennedy, so Peluso pushed him to have another go.
“I thought it was chopping off more than I could chew,” Simonson said. “But Ron said he wanted Kennedy in the story, so I forced myself to find a way.”
His scenario uses two moments in Rabinovitz’s life to make the connection. One is almost factual: Robinson was going to visit the Rabinovitz home, but his schedule prevented it. Nonetheless, bigots vandalized Dave Rabinovitz’s law office with racist graffiti. Simonson used that moment, and imagined that Robinson did in fact make the visit.
The second incident has Kennedy being in the home, and that did happen.
“Once that started to work, it became fun,” Simonson said. “We flipped from one time to another and started telling the story about Kennedy’s relationship with Ronnie and how that related to Jackie.”
The Rabinovitzes did persuade Jackie to meet Jack, but not to much effect. Robinson considered the senator a privileged kid from Massachusetts who sold out to make political gain. But their political differences mattered less to Simonson. The story is about a boy who had an amazing vantage point and a father who made possible this rare experience.
“He was able to watch this critical time in U.S. history come into his living room,” said Peluso.
As for Rabinowitz, it’s clear which man was closest to his heart.
“I admired them both,” he said. “But Jackie Robinson was my friend.”