We invited the Columbia community to reflect on Muriel Battle — as a person and as an educator. We heard from many of her colleagues and friends about what her legacy meant to them, and to Columbia Public Schools.
From Russell Thompson, former superintendent, Columbia Public Schools:
It is difficult to think of Muriel Battle without including her husband, Eliot. They were a remarkably close couple. Although each had a unique personality, they shared a common vision — an unwavering belief in the equality of all persons. Muriel understood better than most what really binds us together on this Earth is greater than what separates us. This underlying conviction influenced her work with children, faculty, parents and the community.
Muriel graduated from college at a time few women, particularly minority women, attended college. She believed her future and the future of others were intimately intertwined with education. Her life's journey led her to this community, fortunately for Columbia, where she continued her passion for learning and assuring more children have the opportunity for quality education. She was the quintessential educator — intelligent, well educated, compassionate, professional, optimistic and "quietly charismatic."
At the time I selected her as the school district's first female Associate Superintendent, she had not originally applied for the position because she assumed I was seeking a younger person. I explained to her that I wanted someone with experience, intelligence and the ability to relate to and care about others. I believed she was that person — that proved to be true.
In addition to her exemplary career, she was an even more impressive person with high expectations for herself and others. She was a special lady.
From Nancy Schawo (formerly Nancy Ott), who was a physical education teacher at West Junior High while Muriel Battle was principal there:
I just wanted to share a short memory to show how personable Muriel was and how she would make time for people.
I was in her office one spring day, right in the heart of track coaching season, and Easter was fast approaching. I was stressed out because I was busy with school and coaching all day and trying to sew Easter outfits for my two children at night. I think I was about in tears!
So Muriel said, "Look here!" (that's how she started a lot of her conversations) and then went on to share with me how she had spent some long hours sewing Easter outfits for her family when her children were young as well. She knew the stress I was experiencing.
It did not change the deadlines, but I felt better about things and had a good laugh with her.
From Julia Helvey, who interacted with Muriel Battle as a substitute teacher and as a parent:
Our oldest son, Howard, started at West Junior High in 1980. It was an exciting yet anxious time for this 7th grader. In just a few days he came home with a small paper badge that Muriel Battle had given him. It read, "You were caught being good." He was proud that the principal of his school had noticed him among the many others. Muriel Battle was very conscious of all the students in the school and she often was at the door when they arrived, and she was there to tell them good-bye in the afternoon. She would also visit the lunchroom and their classrooms. They knew she cared.
When our son Harold's special classroom was being transferred to West Junior High School from another school, Dr. Battle was told that a temporary classroom would be put at the back of the building for this class. She would not have that. She went to work and found a suitable classroom within the building. Those students were happy and productive in their new space. In fact, WJHS's faculty lunch room was the cleanest of all schools. This classroom cleaned it every day and on Friday they cleaned out the refrigerator.
I was a substitute teacher during the 1980s. Though I could be called to any of the schools in the district, I always looked forward to teaching at WJHS. The cooperation of all the faculty and staff was really evident when I was in that building. Dr. Battle was so appreciative of their efforts and always thanked the substitutes who shared their time on any given day. I am happy to have stayed in contact with the Battle family and am so pleased that her name will live on as a legacy to education when the new Battle High School opens.
From Sherry Dobbs, who taught English at West Junior High School while Muriel Battle was assistant principal and principal
When she talked with anyone — parents, students, or teachers — I remember being repeatedly impressed by Muriel’s ability to listen and understand. She was astute and intuitive. With these gifts she zeroed in on underlying issues, even if they were unstated or distorted. When as assistant principal she interviewed to become the next principal, the WJHS faculty unanimously backed her. The West faculty has always been noted for diverse and independent thinking, and I remember marveling that our support for Muriel was truly solid and wide ranging. And what did Muriel do next but strengthen that support when she became the principal. Talk about leadership! And such an elegant lady she was, too.
She identified diversity as a strength of WJHS and consistently promoted diversity, such as initiating the Multicultural Club and the Multicultural Assembly each year. Muriel knew that EVERY student is special, and she conveyed this idea in each decision she made as our leader. West’s school motto for many years, which she originated, was “We’re Glad You’re Here!” How fabulous that our entire community will continue to remember her fondly and will say with the opening of Battle High School, “We’re Glad Muriel Battle Was Here.” If this isn’t a fitting legacy for Dr. Battle, I don’t know what is.
From Jim Ritter, former superintendent, Columbia Public Schools
Words are not adequate to describe Muriel Battle. You had to experience her. I began that experience as a 23-year-old teacher and counselor at Hickman High School and was joined as a counselor by Muriel's husband, Eliot. Eliot and I worked side-by-side as counselors and then administrators for the next forty years. It was through my close friendship with Eliot that I was introduced to Muriel and their four beautiful young children. During the years of my association with Muriel, she was an elementary teacher at Douglass School and a social studies teacher, assistant principal and principal at West Junior High School. When I retired for the first time, Muriel replaced me as associate superintendent of schools, a position from which she retired.
My professional and personal friendship with the Battle family has been deep. I spent time in their home and with their children, watching those children grow into adulthood, where each has experienced significant success. My closeness to the family allowed me to learn about many of the issues they had experienced before coming to Columbia and during their early years in Columbia. Eliot and Muriel were the perfect team and set an example in both their personal and professional lives that all should try to emulate. Muriel exuded class. She was attractive, well dressed, articulate, personable and had this great sense of humor. She never met a stranger that didn't feel warm after meeting her. But these weren't superficial characteristics. She received her masters and doctorate from MU and served in major administrative roles for the Columbia Public Schools. She was bright and related well to diverse groups of teachers, students and parents. Her leadership qualities were evident from the beginning, but her "can do attitude" is what set her apart. While she was African-American, she was a woman for all the people. The school district was blessed to have her services.
Muriel along with Eliot served their community in various ways serving on numerous committees and Boards both locally and state wide. Muriel at one time served as chair of the board at Lincoln University. After retirement she and Eliot formed a consulting business that worked with school districts across the nation. Eliot also worked for Columbia College.
Understanding better than many the challenges the Battles faced upon their arrival in Columbia, the way they worked for better understanding between races by working quietly from within rather than leading the parade, earned them the respect of the entire community. They, indeed, were named Columbia's outstanding Citizens of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce. The Muriel Battle High School will honor Muriel's outstanding accomplishments. Thousands of students will walk down those halls with the wonderful example of Muriel Battle inspiring them.
From Charlotte Dean, who worked with Muriel at West Junior High School and through Delta Kappa Gamma, an international society of women educators:
Muriel was about family and not just her own. She was a friend, someone who was there when you needed her. And Muriel was fun. She enjoyed life and loved to share her enthusiasm.
Those of you who attended the memorial service for Muriel and heard the words of her four children and grandson know where Muriel put her love and priorities. But she extended these to all families.
I began teaching at West Junior on a part-time basis in 1983. Justin was in grade school and Andrea and Megan were 4. I had been out of teaching for a while and was trying to ease back in and see if this is what I really wanted to do. I did enjoy it and Muriel made me feel an important and integral part of the faculty even though I was only there 2 hours a day. When I was given the opportunity to return the next year, again part-time, my girls were in kindergarten. While I wanted to teach I was hesitant because of the time of the classes. The classes fell in the early afternoon and the girls were in morning kindergarten. Muriel could have said take it or leave it, but instead she asked me when I needed those classes in order to be home with the girls. This was the middle of August and schedules had obviously not been set, but without hesitation, she moved the classes to the morning, so I could teach and still be with my family. You might say she had my attention, but most of all my admiration. She thought as a mother, not just as an administrator. There was never a time when I asked off to attend one of my children’s programs that it was not granted. When I asked for a leave to travel to England with my husband and family, there was not even a moment of hesitation. Muriel knew where her priorities were and she taught me to put mine there too. Muriel was family.
Muriel was also a friend. On several occasions over the years, I found myself turning to her for counsel and advice. I recall the time I was faced with the decision to leave West Jr. and go to Oakland to help pilot the middle school program. The person I turned to was Muriel. She was at the Board Office then and I gave her a call. She saw me that very day. Together we went through the pros and cons. She didn’t try to make the decision for me, but rather helped me to put it all in perspective to determine what was best for me. In the end, I knew what I needed to do, but I remember her words, “whatever you decide, you will have my blessing, Charlotte.” I knew I could always turn to her. No matter how busy, she would find the time to talk. Muriel was a friend.
Muriel could be a lot of fun and was very down to earth. Perhaps my fondest memories of Muriel come from the trip we made to England in the summer of 1989. This was the last year of the Exchange Program that Columbia Public Schools had with Somerset County in England. I was so excited to be going — my first trip abroad, the opportunity to observe education in another country, and I was traveling with a woman I admired very much. I have to admit I was also a little intimidated because she was my boss, and the other 3 people were chairs of departments whom I did not know. I felt I should be on my best behavior and stay quiet and reserved. Muriel was her usual gracious self and whirlwind of energy.
In the middle of the trip, she made a flight back to the States to receive an award from the President of the United States for the drug program at West. She was back in England before we knew it and was laughing and charming everyone at a garden party given by one of the headmasters. Most of us were just getting over jet lag at that point and here she was doing it twice without missing a beat. As one of the headmasters, Stephen Phillips, recently wrote to me, I knew she was special when one day she was shaking hands with the President of the United States and the next night she was sleeping in my upstairs bedroom as if it were all common place. She was at home anywhere.
I think Muriel is smiling down on us tonight and encouraging us to think of our families, our friendships, and our fun.
From Sandra Logan, published each year in the West Junior High School student handbook
In the foyer of our main entrance, there is a portrait of Dr. Muriel Battle.... Dr. Battle was greatly loved and respected, both for her excellent leadership and for her warm and caring ways. She accomplished many things during the 29 years she worked at West Junior High. She, along with another visionary leader, Mr. Gus Lehr, forged the way for the very first educational and business partnership in Columbia when West Junior joined Shelter Insurance Companies as Partners In Education in 1984. In conjunction with West's Student Council, Dr. Battle also helped start the “Honorary Viking” tradition, which is a title bestowed upon special retiring teachers and other community leaders for their contributions to our school.
The motto of West during Dr. Battle's tenure as principal was “We're Glad You're Here.” It is fitting that the portrait of Dr. Battle, who was an Honorary Viking, should be placed in our foyer, along with the warm greeting of “We're Glad You're Here.” It is hoped that all who enter our school will view her portrait and be reminded that West Junior has been and will always be a school rich in heritage, strong in purpose, and ready for the challenges that lie ahead.
Add your memories or tributes to Muriel Battle in the comments below, or by emailing submissions@ColumbiaMissourian.com.
Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.