Rachel and Jackie Robinson in 1947 at the Apollo Theater
By Mary Green
04/19/2013 AT 06:30 PM EDT
When a friend told UCLA freshman Rachel Isum she had to meet a popular jock named Jackie Robinson, she said, "I'm not interested," she recalls. "I thought he'd be arrogant." But she decided to test the waters anyway. "When I met Jack, he was so humble, so thoughtful – and handsome," she says. "I thought, 'I'm glad I was wrong!' "
The couple began a five-year courtship, finally wedding on Feb. 10, 1946. "We always said we'd get married once Jack got a job," says Rachel. "And then one day Branch Rickey called Jack."
The then-president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rickey was committed to breaking the race barrier in Major League Baseball – and he was convinced Robinson was the perfect man to do it: talented enough to win the respect of fans and players; strong enough to withstand the inevitable firestorm that would ensue.
A key step in helping to pave the way for the civil rights movement, Robinson's Major League debut in 1947 – with Rachel cheering him from the stands – is chronicled in a new film, 42, which takes an unflinching view of the abuse and prejudice the couple faced.
"Racism was rampant at that time," says Rachel, 92, a widow since Jackie's death from a heart attack in 1972. "But we knew the end goal was important. We weren't going to lose because some crazies were shouting insults and throwing balls at his head."
The danger didn't end there. "Some threats were very specific," says Rachel. " 'I'm going to shoot Jackie in St. Louis.' Or 'I'm going to kill Rachel.' " Yet the couple refused to live in seclusion. "We really felt that as long as we were together, nothing could happen to us. And luckily nothing ever did."
At home in Stamford, Conn., the pair focused on insulating their three children – Jackie Jr., Sharon and David – from the chaos. "Jack and I made a pact," says Rachel, "that our home would be a haven."
To his kids, says Sharon, now 63, Jackie "was a giant of a man." She recalls a favorite wintertime ritual in which her dad would test the backyard lake for ice skating.
"He would step onto the deepest part," she says. "The amazing part was, he couldn't swim. To watch him step out there just to make sure it was safe for us made him even more of a giant in my eyes."