Phillip Batton

Obituary of Phillip Lawrence Batton

Phillip Lawrence Batton was born on January 11, 1939 to Jewel (nee Williams) and Harvey Lee Batton, the second of four children. Born in Clairton, PA, a segregated steel mill town on the Monongahela River east of Pittsburgh, Phil grew up in the shadow of the U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works, one of the world’s largest production mills, where his father worked for most of his adult life. Phil might have worked there as well but for a serious head-and-neck football injury he incurred during his sophomore year at Clairton High School, where due to his athleticism and fearlessness as a wide receiver, he was selected to play on the varsity football team. Initially paralyzed, Phil recovered; and although he remained atrophied on his left side for the rest of his life, he had a graceful swagger to his stride and gestures. Phil’s accident made him eligible for free college education from the State of Pennsylvania, and rather than remain a “ward of the state” because of his physical limitations, he was offered the rare opportunity to develop his mind. He graduated from Clairton High School and went on to graduate from California State Teachers College with a Bachelor of Science degree in secondary education, the first person in his family to attend and complete college. As a teenager, Phil became proficient in speaking and writing Spanish, thanks to his mother Jewel’s purchase of a Spanish language book and encouragement. Although at first there were no Spanish-speakers in Blair Heights, a Puerto Rican family moved to Clairton. Phil rushed over to greet them in Spanish, and they became fast friends. Phil went on to study Spanish in college and spent a summer living with a family in Mexico City during his junior year, furthering his interest in languages, cultures and progressive social change. Armed with his degree, Phil tried to be hired as a teacher at local secondary schools, but he was rebuffed with racist responses like, “What position did you come to apply for - janitor?” In 1963, Phil migrated to New York City and moved into an apartment on East 100th Street, sponsored by the East Harlem Protestant Parish. His roommate there was Harvey Mason, another Pennsylvania transplant, who was to become Phil’s life-long friend. Upon arriving in New York City, Phil initially worked at the International Labor Organization (ILO) library at the United Nations. But that job was short-lived, as he was able to become a paraprofessional at JHS 99, and soon after that, a teacher of Spanish at JHS 117 and Harbor JHS for the Performing Arts. In all probability, it was no accident that Phil ended up living and teaching in East Harlem, then as now, a predominantly Latino neighborhood - El Barrio. While Phil was living in East Harlem, he was radicalized politically by students at City College of NY (CCNY), who were members of the communist Marxist-Leninist Progressive Labor Movement (PLM, formed in 1962 and later renamed the Progressive Labor Party or PLP in April 1965). Three massive campaigns of the PLM at that time were: the Student Committee for Travel to Cuba (1963-64), which organized travel groups to post-revolutionary Cuba; the Harlem Defense Council (1964), a response to police brutality and murder; and the May 2nd Movement (M2M, established 1964), an anti-imperialist opposition group to the Vietnam War. Phil joined the PLP sometime during the late 60’s and became a club leader of the NYC teachers’ work. As such, he also attended meetings of the City Committee. Another significant contribution Phil made to PLP was with his voice in a group of singers on two PLP albums: “Power to the Working Class” (1971) and “A World to Win - Album Two” (year unknown). He also served as a translator of articles from English into Spanish for Challenge/Desafio and other PLP publications. His melodious voice and astute critical analysis live on in song and print. Phil’s love of music and film had a big impact on all of his children, but especially his eldest daughter, Rachel, which inspired her career as a film and television producer. From September 1986-June 1988, Phil’s middle daughter Diana attended and graduated from JHS 117, during which time Phil was Diana’s computer science teacher. Phil continued to teach at JHS 117, until he decided to retire and move to Iowa City, IA to study for a Master’s degree in Anthropology. He stayed in Iowa for almost three years, during which time he was joined by his youngest daughter, Jennifer, who lived with him and continued her college education there. In 1998, Phil returned to his apartment in the Bronx. From 1999- 2005, he worked with the Physicians’ Assistant certification program at Bronx Lebanon Hospital, teaching medical Spanish with friend Paul Foster. He also taught medical Spanish in the P.A. program at the Sophie Davis/CUNY School of Biomedical Education from 2008-2015, based at Harlem Hospital. During his retirement, Phil traveled several times to Brazil and once to Costa Rica with his older brother, Harvey, and friends. Phil was both an autodidact and polymath: he taught himself many languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, French, Russian, and Chinese. He studied astronomy and built his own telescope to photograph the surface of the moon with his daughters. He loved studying computer science, aviation, anthropology, Marxist-Leninist writings, African and African American history. And though he was scholarly, he also enjoyed a full social life and cherished his family. His charisma and jovial disposition made those around him feel comfortable, and he was always ready to listen, shoot the breeze or talk politics. He never stopped learning and would use his knowledge to spark conversation and inspire others, but never to demean. He shared relationships with people from all walks of life and truly believed we are all equal. Phil was married in 1970 to Barbara Watanabe, a fellow teacher and political organizer. They divorced in 2008, following a long separation, but remained close friends through the years. Phil is survived by Barbara and their three daughters: Rachel Watanabe-Batton, Diana Emiko Batton-Fitzgerald and Jennifer Tomiko Beaugris; son-in-laws Brian Keith Fitzgerald and Louis M. Stanley Beaugris; and three grandchildren: Nicholas Matsuzo Colon, Ellie Akemi Beaugris, and Evan Ichiro Beaugris. His brother, Harvey Lee Batton, Jr., predeceased him in January 2019. Phil is also survived by two sisters, Annette Grady of Conley, GA and Patricia Batton of Clairton, PA, many generations of nieces and nephews, extended family, and close friends. After fighting off a series of illnesses, Phillip Batton passed away peacefully on Friday, January 22, 2021 at Schervier Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Phil traversed the world near and far, and made every room he entered a more wonderful place to be. He will be missed greatly by his family, friends, former students, colleagues, caregivers and comrades. Bella Ciao, Daddy. A Memorial Service will be held in the near future to celebrate the life of Phillip L. Batton Please contact his daughters or Barbara, if you would like to take part. Thank you. If you have a good memory of Phil that you would like to share or a favorite song you would like to sing in his memory, please send a video to daughter Rachel Watanabe-Batton via Drobox for the memorial tribute. The Batton Family is creating a student scholarship in Phil’s name. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to this fund. Thank you for your support. Contact Rachel for further information The Batton Family wishes to thank all of the staff at the Schervier Nursing Center who cared for our Daddy Phil while he resided there. We are especially thankful for the 4 North nursing staff, social workers, 1S Rehab staff and physical and speech therapists, kitchen, laundry, cleaning, security, maintenance, patient services and administration. Nurses Masha, Kathleen, Denise, and Nursing Aides Tanya, Theresa and Hospice Aide Thelma were wonderful when we could not visit during the pandemic -- helping to keep his days joyful with Bob Marley music and current events even up to the 2021 Presidential Inauguration. We appreciate your generosity of spirit and excellent care. We also wish to thank the wonderful Calvary Hospice team who supported us during Daddy’s final months with care, counsel and visits. Thank you to the doctors, nurses, PAs and staff at Allen Pavillion Hospital who cared for Daddy last year amidst the unprecedented pandemic. Thank you to Riverdale Funeral Home for the kindness and clarity they have shown our family. And last but not least, thank you to all of the family and friends who loved and cared for Phil aka the Batman aka Felipe aka Philco Radio all these years. He sure was special. We hope to celebrate the life and legacy of Phillip L. Batton with you soon. To plant Memorial Trees in memory of Phillip Lawrence Batton, please click here to visit our Sympathy Store.
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Private Service

12:00 pm
Saturday, June 12, 2021
Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum
770 Riverside Dr
New York, New York, United States
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