Community gathers to celebrate the life of Eliot Battle

Saturday, June 29, 2013 | 6:38 p.m. CDT; updated 11:01 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 1, 2013
Family, friends and community members attend the Celebration of Life service for Eliot Battle on Saturday at the Missouri United Methodist Church in downtown Columbia. Members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity held an Omega Service, which is a ritual service for deceased fraternity brothers.

COLUMBIA — At a memorial Saturday morning, esteemed Columbia educator Eliot Battle continued to receive standing ovations for his service to the community.

Hundreds gathered to honor him at his place of worship, Missouri United Methodist Church on South Ninth Street. The sanctuary, with a capacity of between 700 and 800 people, was nearly full, with only a few seats left in the balconies.

Silence filled the room as the clock struck 11 a.m., but the first notes of a joyful piano prelude set the tone. Laughter and thunderous applause began to echo off the stained-glass windows as friends and family offered tributes.

“We’re here to celebrate the life of Eliot Battle, not to mourn his passing,”  said Jim Ritter, retired Columbia Public Schools superintendent and a close friend, speaking for many.

Battle, 88, died June 11 after a car accident near his home. An educator, father and friend, he was known for his positive attitude, passion for people and crusade for equality.

He served as an educator in Columbia for more than 40 years and left a lasting legacy  in the community. A pioneer during the era of civil rights, he became the first black faculty member at Hickman High School in 1960 and helped end segregation in the district.

A line of eulogizers

Before the service, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity’s Beta Zeta Lambda chapter remembered Battle with a ritual for deceased fraternity brothers. He was a member of the fraternity for 60 years.

Then, from a pulpit surrounded by flowers, 11 of Battle’s friends and family members shared their memories of his compassion and dedication to family, colleagues and education.

His oldest daughter, Donna Pierce, spoke first among immediate family members, describing her father and his wife, Muriel, who died in 2003. Friday would have been their 63rd wedding anniversary.

“Having them as parents was even better than you can imagine,” Pierce said. “Dad had so many chapters of his life.”

She touched on her father's upbringing in Mobile, Ala., and his move to Poplar Bluff, where he and Muriel began their work in education. They came to Columbia in 1956, and Pierce thanked all the families who stood up for her parents and helped them when the city's schools were still segregated along racial lines.

Pierce remembered how her father asked her and her siblings to memorize the eight cardinal virtues of George Washington Carver, one of his role models. She said the values encouraged a life of humility, honesty, bravery and equality.

Her father's favorite quotation was also by Carver, which exemplified how he lived, Pierce said.

She cited the passage: “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life, you will have been all of these.”

Muriel “Jeanne” Battle Browder and Eliot Battle Jr. both noted their father’s love and respect for family and community.

“For all the accomplishments and honors my parents received, they’re the most proud of the four of us,” Browder said about her family.

As she recounted stories, her sense of humor made the congregation erupt with laughter.

“I had 56 incredible years with my dad,” she said. “No, I am not going to start lying about my age today, but the first three years at Hickman, he wasn’t that incredible.”

The mood shifted when Eliot Battle Jr. somberly talked about his respect for his father and gratitude for the community he loved.

“I think you, Columbia, deserve a thank you in sincere appreciation for your 50-plus years of supporting not only my father, but my family,” he said.

A father himself, he urged others to raise the bar and follow his own father's example. At one point, he encouraged the congregation to stand and applaud all fathers, and members of the audience sprang to their feet with a standing ovation that lasted nearly a minute.

Family members and others who knew Battle recalled that he used the word “super” every time someone asked how he was — thus a nickname, “Superman.”

Eliot Battle Jr. ended his tribute by acknowledging the difficulty of losing a loved one.

“If you want to know how we're doing, we’re grieving, we’re sad,” he said. “But as you all know, as my father would say — 'we’re super.' ”

The community loses a legend

After the service, members of the community offered their own reflections.

Shelley Sigholtz said she has had lifelong ties to Missouri United Methodist Church and began attending services regularly after moving back to Columbia eight years ago. She said she saw Battle at church every Sunday.

“It’s a huge loss to the community, but his legacy will live on forever,” Sigholtz said.

Paula Roper, an MU librarian, often saw Battle around the city. Although she was not close to him, she remembered that he always dressed impeccably and was appreciated by his colleagues and students.

“I never heard anyone say anything bad about Eliot Battle,” Roper said.

The Battle family asked Columbia to fill the hole left by their father's death as generous and gracious servants of the community.

“It’s up to all of us to be a little more super,” said Charles Thomas Jr., Battle’s grandson.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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