Missouri United Methodist Church members remember Eliot Battle

Thursday, June 13, 2013 | 7:48 p.m. CDT; updated 11:13 p.m. CDT, Thursday, June 13, 2013

COLUMBIA — The hymn "It Is Well with My Soul," written by Horatio Spafford in 1873, provides comfort during a time of loss. For members of the Missouri United Methodist Church, the hymn offers something more than that.

"It Is Well with My Soul" was Eliot Battle's favorite hymn. Everyone who attended the 8 a.m. service knew this was Eliot's song.

Battle, 88, died Wednesday. A local icon, Battle was an educator for more than 40 years and played a central role in desegregating the school district. He was also a man of faith, an active attendee at United Methodist on Ninth Street.

"Eliot preached a sermon of hope and love through the actions of his life," Senior pastor Amy Gearhart said. "His presence at the church was his involvement, as well as his willingness to speak and lead whenever asked."

Gearhart said that Battle and his family were regulars in the front row at the 8 a.m. service and he was always "impeccably dressed." He had been a member for decades, according to Gearhart, and his presence as an active worshipper showed the importance of faith to the Battle family.

Whenever anyone would ask how he was doing, Battle would respond, "99.9 (percent)."

"That was his way of saying that there will be a time when everything's perfect and well, and that was when he is in heaven with (his wife) Muriel," Gearhart said.

When Eliot was with Muriel, all was well with his soul.

* * *

Russell Thompson was the longest serving superintendent of schools in Columbia, serving 18 years until he became a member of the state Board of Education in 1994. He knew Battle from their time in education together, but he also knew him as a member of the United Methodist church.

"If you're looking for someone who exemplified Christian life, no one did it better than Eliot Battle," Thompson said. "He was a true Christian in every sense of the word, caring for every human being as best as he possibly could."

Thompson elaborated, saying that Battle believed that everyone was equal and stressed the importance of an individual regardless of their background.

While Battle did this with a quiet presence about him, he certainly made his presence known among people he was close to, Thompson said, recalling several cases when young women felt they had to drop out of high school. Battle would not forget them, helping them stay in school and making sure they would get their diploma. Some even moved on to earn a college degree.

"He was perhaps the most caring individual I've ever known," Thompson said.

When Battle was helping his students work towards their highest expectations, all was well with his soul.

* * *

Jan Mees knew Battle from her five years at United Methodist but also knew him from work in the public school system. Mees has served on the Columbia School Board since 2007, a position she credits Battle for helping her attain.

After getting to know Battle through the church and through 21 years working in Columbia Public Schools, she asked him to serve as honorary chair of her election campaign when she ran again for School Board in 2010. Battle agreed, and Mees said it meant a great deal that he thought highly enough of her to put his name next to hers.

"To have Eliot Battle's name associated with you was the biggest stamp of approval in Columbia you could get," she said. "It was an honor and helped gain political and community support to have him by my side."

Mees also spoke of Battle's humble nature and said he was never "braggadocious," despite being an instrumental figure in many areas.

"He was a very quiet leader if you can put 'quiet' and 'leader' in the same sentence," she said. "His presence will be missed, but his aura will always be with us."

Mees also described his positivity both while working and conversing with others. She said that he was able to work without "ruffling others' feathers" while remaining pleasant.

"Whenever someone asked him how he was doing, the response was always 'super,'" Mees said.

When Battle was "super," all was well with his soul.

* * *

Barbara Williamson, an associate teaching professor in the MU College of Education, has known Battle her entire professional career, which dates back to 1969. Battle was Williamson's first boss when she was a counselor at Hickman High School and he served as director of guidance.

They also shared church membership at United Methodist and grew so close that she and her husband, Handy, vice provost of international programs at MU, referred to the Battles as family. She said that they threw Battle a surprise 80th birthday party, inviting more than 150 guests to the party at the University Club that caught Battle completely off-guard.

Williamson said that the loss of Battle was a personal loss for her and her husband.

"We left Columbia in 1974 and never thought we'd return," she said. "But sure enough, when we came back in 2001, we connected with Eliot and picked up right where we left off."

Williamson described Battle as a very positive person who always saw and tried to find the good in people.

"He was always compassionate, loving and kind," she said. "I know that's what people always say when someone passes, but with Eliot they're really true."

Williamson confirmed that Battle's favorite hymn was "It Is Well with my Soul" and that he would always be in front of the church, requesting the congregation to sing that song, how the song was a comfort for him, and that everyone knew it as his song.

And when Eliot Battle was at Missouri United Methodist Church, singing his favorite hymn, all was well with his soul.

Supervising editor is Jake Kreinberg.

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