When anyone asked Eliot Battle how he was doing, he would always answer, "Super."
Battle, a longtime Columbia educator, died Tuesday (June 11) from injuries sustained after a car crass Friday. He was 88.
Battle had a key role in the desegregation of Columbia's public schools. And the new high school in town, Muriel Williams Battle High School, was named in honor of his wife, who died in 2003.
News of his death broke to the community on Wednesday. Like countless others in the community, I sorted through my own memories of him. Mine are limited, but Battle was one of those people who you meet once, and remember fondly forever.
As a young reporter for the Columbia Missourian, I covered the high school naming process. I had the chance to sit and talk with Battle in his home one afternoon. I remember him flipping through a photo album in the living room. I remember his little dog, Truman. I remember the way he walked, and the way he smiled.
And I remember clearly the way his voice sounded on the phone when I called him one evening to tell him the news: The high school naming committee meeting had ended, and they had chosen his wife's name.
"That is fantastic," he'd said. He felt proud, and heavy-hearted, and the news had made his day.
This week, I spoke with a few people who were much closer to him than I. They were part of his church family at Missouri United Methodist Church, though most of them also had long-standing relationships with him through education.
“He always sat in the back pews of the 8 o’clock a.m. service, dressed impecibly in his suit, and just a quiet presence in that worship service, but when he was not there, he was absolutely missed," said Rev. Amy Gearhart, a pastor at the church. She first met Battle a few years ago, when she arrived in Columbia.
And Battle's own life story shone clearly to those around him.
"We don’t even need to gather to re-tell his story because he told it with his life," Gearhart said. "The sermon of Eliot Battle was his life."
It's a life many have wished to emulate.
"There are many who have said to me, that 'I wish I could live the rest of my life in the same way Eliot lived his life,'" said longtime friend Handy Williamson. "Meaning that he had had a profound impact on them and caused them to think about their gracefulness, and their acceptance of the others."
Williamson and his wife, Barbara Williamson, first met Battle when they moved to Columbia in the 1960s. Handy Williamson had a graduate school interview at MU, and Barbara Williamson was beginning her first job out of graduate school at Hickman High School, where Battle worked at the time. He was her first boss.
What started as a purely professional relationship eventually blossomed into a deep friendship between the Battles and the Williamsons. The couples would get together for dinner, and they did so shortly before Muriel Battle was hospitalized and died. And after her death, Eliot Battle still got together with the Williamsons.They'd become like family, Barbara Williamson said.
One of Barbara Williamson's favorite memories of Battle is from about 10 years ago. He was about to turn 80, and at the last minute, she and her husband decided to do something special for him, so they decided to throw him a party. They called people they knew who would want to be there, and they spread the word on some listservs. Three days later, on the day of the party, more than 150 people gathered to celebrate.
When he saw such a large group gathered, Battle was so surprised – his mouth dropped open in awe.
And Battle always knew how to see the good in people, Barbara Williamson said. That's the biggest lesson she learned from him: See the good in other people, and praise it.
For Jan Mees, the mark of Eliot Battle was persistence – "persistence for many causes."
She first met battle in the 1990s, when her son attended Hickman. They also attended the same church service, and parishioners could make requests for hymns. Battle always requested "It is Well with My Soul."
"That hymn was just running through my mind (Wednesday) all day as I thought about him," Mees said. It's sweet to think about, she said.
When Barbara Williamson visited Battle in the hospital near his death, she hummed part of it to him, and she hopes it brought him a sense of comfort.
Remember Eliot Battle
A celebration of life for Eliot Battle will be held at 11 a.m. on Saturday, June 29, at Missouri United Methodist Church on Ninth Street.
This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values, mid-Missouri's source for religion news. Find more stories, and more information about the project behind the faith & values desk, at ColumbiaFAVS.com.