Burnie Battles: An Influential Teacher. A Passionate Personality. An Enduring Legacy.
-By Derek Smith
If you ask family, colleagues and friends about Burnie Battles (BA '65, MSEd '66), you get the sense they hardly know where to begin.
Family man, teacher, mentor. Joyful, loyal, compassionate. Gymnast, entertainer, competitor. These are just a few of their descriptions as they search for the words to help you understand why they loved him and why they miss him so much, three years after they lost him in a tragic car accident.
Their stories help explain why his colleagues and friends worked as a team to start a scholarship in his memory; why a camp near Meridian sold covered parking spaces to help fund the scholarship; and why a parent was so moved by Battles' kindness to her family that she gave generously to ensure that the Burnie F. Battles Memorial Endowed Scholarship Fund would become a reality.
"Burnie had the ability to make people feel loved and to let people know what he loved," said Dale Connally, (BSed '83, MSEd '84), interim chair of Health, Human Performance and Recreation and longtime colleague of Burnie. "And you knew when you hung around Burnie that he loved God, he loved his family, he loved the outdoors, he loved working with kids and he loved Baylor."
"He was influential to so many people," Suzanne Roper (BME '62) remembered. Suzanne's sons attended camps led by Burnie and she and her husband went on backpacking expeditions that Burnie organized with members of their church.
"After his death, I knew it would be a shame not to have a scholarship in his memory," Suzanne said. "He contributed so much to the School of Education over the years."
Battles spent 42 years as a professor in the School of Education at Baylor, teaching courses such as recreational leadership, racquetball and more, where he influenced countless students.
"He loved to tease his students, but he also held them to a very high standard," Connally said. "He gave them the sense that this was a worthwhile major-that it was a worthwhile way to help people and that outdoor recreation was a tool for ministry."
Battles' "ministry of recreation" was nowhere more apparent than at Camp John Marc, a camp for children with chronic illnesses and major physical disabilities and their families, where Burnie volunteered for 20 years.
"People still ask us about him all the time," Vance Gilmore, director of Camp John Marc, said. "They still say, ‘remember this Burnie story, or that Burnie song?' He connected in a very meaningful way. He was very patient, very encouraging and very empathetic."
Gilmore remembers watching as parents watched their children participate in confidence-building activities, such as a ropes course. These pursuits helped give them a sense of normalcy, emboldened by Battles' guidance and encouragement.
Mary Helen Battles saw firsthand the impact that the children had on her husband.
"Seeing those kids really got under his skin," Mary Helen said. "They helped him see them as the people they were, if that makes sense. They were children who had goals and dreams, not just a child who was sick."
Around the campfire, Burnie-quite the entertainer, according to Gilmore-kept families laughing with stories like "Rindercella" (look it up). But he also helped children accomplish physical goals that might have seemed improbable, given their disabilities.
His friends experience a range of emotions as they remember him. One minute, they tear up remembering his compassion for sick children; the next, they are re-living a 100-mile bike trip or a hike through the Grand Canyon with Burnie. Suddenly, they marvel at his physical prowess-doing a handstand over Rainbow Bridge, back-flipping off a tire swing or just daring his students to beat him at racquetball.
They hope future students will hear these stories, too, when they receive the scholarship awarded in his memory. That's why so many people chipped in, from Camp John Marc to Baylor to Dallas.
"I think it's important to perpetuate the footsteps of someone so significant," said Gilmore. "He was so loyal to Baylor and to us. It would be motivating for a rec student receiving this scholarship to aspire to be the sort of practitioner he was."
For his wife, Mary Helen, and the Battles family, the outpouring is heartwarming.
"The love for him, his love for Baylor and for students can continue through this scholarship," Mary Helen said, before pausing. "I can almost hear his heart smile."