COLUMBIA — One of the city's most astounding educators and a key player in the desegregation of Columbia Public Schools will be honored Friday.
Eliot Battle, 85, will receive an honorary doctorate from MU at the Graduate School commencement ceremony, which begins at 8 p.m. at the Hearnes Center.
Battle was the first black faculty member at Hickman High School in 1960 as a guidance counselor. He later became director of guidance at Hickman and for the Columbia school district.
Battle's career in counseling was accidental. Battle received his degree in agricultural education and taught agriculture to veterans in Poplar Bluff. When the superintendent of Columbia Public Schools offered Battle a position as assistant principal and guidance counselor at the then all-black Douglass High School in 1956, Battle and his family made the move to Columbia.
His initial work at Douglass came naturally.
“It was just part of my makeup, I had a knack for doing it, and I knew that I was successful at it," Battle said. "I felt like I needed to be paying some money to the board instead of them paying me to do what I was doing.”
In 1960, Battle made the transition from Douglass High School to the newly desegregated Hickman High School.
Jim Ritter, former superintendent of Columbia Public Schools, was a guidance counselor with Battle .
“We went through some times where we were dealing with the desegregation, and he was such a valuable (asset) to the rest of us," Ritter said. "He did a great job with our staff ... (and) he was equally effective with all young people.”
Battle recalled a social studies teacher who was teaching about the Civil War when he arrived at Hickman. The teacher displayed authentic copies of signs that had been used during the Civil War, some of which contained racial slurs, in a place that was visible to all students — white or black.
"Those were things at the beginning that shouldn’t have occurred, but they did,” Battle said.
He said Douglass students were accustomed to playing a prominent role in typical high school activities, such as Homecoming and class elections, and they "found themselves stepping down a notch in many cases as far as their performance" when they moved to Hickman.
"For the first few years, the students felt sort of put out," Battle said. “I was sort of a comfort level person for them. They’d sort of get the chance to vent their feelings."
Ritter said that Battle's personal approach with all students was quickly recognized at Hickman.
“Not only was he the finest counselor that I’ve known in my years with the school district, and throughout the state I think he had that reputation, and he also contributed so much in organizations working outside of kids of his school and being a great community citizen,” Ritter said.
According to the MU News Bureau, Battle established the Continuing Education Center Program at Douglass High School in 1967. He was also elected President of the Missouri Guidance Association and served on the Board of Trustees at Columbia College. He and his late wife, Muriel, were honored by the city of Columbia in 2000 as citizens of the year.
His effect on education has lasted long after retiring from Columbia Public Schools in 1991.
“Interestingly enough, after people would graduate, they still sought him out for counseling and advice when they were in college and even in later years," Ritter said. "He was really an outstanding person as an educator and also as a human being.”
“I have never known someone who was more positive," Ritter added. "You ask Eliot how he’s doing and his answer is always ‘Super!’ no matter what the circumstances are.”
Michael Woods, 43, a Columbia College alumnus who now is a special education instructor at Rock Bridge Senior High School, said that even years after interacting with Battle, his influence is still felt.
“He had a hand in steering my life in the right direction,” Woods said.
Battle later gave Woods a copy of his book, "A Letter to Young Black Men," published in 1997, which, Woods said, helped “sort some things out for myself.”
A nomination letter submitted by Ritter on Battle's behalf called attention to Battle's personality and professionalism. Ritter explained his rationale for nominating Battle:
"He has been truly the consummate educator over the years and as a result of that and his community service ... makes him simply stand out in our community, and I think when the university began to think of people who had done in their lifetime the kind of things that they wanted to give an honorary doctorate to, that Eliot just simply stood out as that person."