When National Education Association members met in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the 40-year anniversary of integrating the nation’s teachers unions, they gave a standing ovation to Richard Batchelder.
He was the NEA’s president in 1966 when two unions, one representing white teachers and one for African-American teachers, combined to form one organization, whose membership now exceeds 3 million.
“We became a different organization because of him and we will never go back,” said Dennis Van Roekel, the NEA’s current president. “It was such a powerful moment in our history and it was a testimony to Richard Batchelder’s tenacity and his commitment to social justice.”
Mr. Batchelder, who remained active in education issues after retiring to Cape Cod, died of Parkinson’s disease Feb. 26 in his Chatham home. He was 87.
Known to friends and colleagues as Batch, Mr. Batchelder also was credited with helping shift the NEA from being led mainly by administrators and higher-education professionals to an organization led by teachers.
During his tenure, the NEA merged with the American Teachers Association, which represented African-American educators. At the time, presidents served one-year terms, which offered little time for sweeping changes.
“It was 1966, and we were in the midst of the civil rights movement,” Van Roekel said. “This was not an easy transition. Not everyone thought it was the best idea. But Batch stepped up and led, and people believed in him. He was articulate and bright, and his message grabbed people.”
Mr. Batchelder’s views on segregation formed while he served in the Navy during World War II, said his son, Richard Jr. of Weston.
“When he saw the segregated troops, that had a profound impact on him,” his son said. “He had a very strong moral compass. He was such a good role model.”
Born in Canton, Richard David Batchelder was the oldest child of Nelson Batchelder and the former Marjorie Curra.
He graduated from Canton High School in 1942, enrolled in Northeastern University, and decided to enlist in the Navy after seeing the Noel Coward film “In Which We Serve.” When his father heard about the decision, he enlisted, too, and both were stationed in the South Pacific.
Mr. Batchelder was an aviation radio operator and returned home after World War II to attend Boston University on the GI Bill, graduating in 1949. He took a job at Chatham High School, where he taught five subjects, including math and history.
In 1952, he graduated with a master’s in education from what is now Bridgewater State University, but his teaching salary was so low he worked two extra jobs.
“I don’t think he had planned to get involved in the teacher’s movement,” his son said, “but he starting thinking, ‘What can I do to improve this situation?’ He thought that teachers were too important to children and to the community to have to work second or third jobs.”
Mr. Batchelder helped negotiate better pay for teachers and soon was appointed president of the union representing Chatham educators. In that capacity he welcomed Martha Cook, a physical education teacher, to Chatham High School. They married in 1955.
“A framed letter still hangs on the wall of their house,” said their daughter Anne of Chatham. “It’s from my Dad, welcoming Miss Cook to her new job.”
In 1957, the couple moved to Newton, where Mr. Batchelder taught at Newton High School and became involved in the state branch of the NEA. At 34, he was head of the organization’s department of classroom teachers.
About that time he became interested in working on the national level to combine the NEA with the American Teachers Association. He was only 40 when he became the NEA’s national president.
Al-Tony Gilmore, NEA archivist emeritus, called Mr. Batchelder “one of the chief architects of the modern NEA” and said he was “a visionary, a strong proponent for equity and social justice in the NEA, when those terms did not resonate with the American public to the extent they do today.”
Noting that NEA membership surpassed 1 million during Mr. Batchelder’s presidency, Gilmore said that “during the racially volatile and contentious era of the 1960s, Batchelder earned the trust and confidence of NEA progressives and the leadership of the American Teachers Association.”
After his term as president ended, Mr. Batchelder moved his family to California for six years, then Florida for eight years, serving as a leader of each state’s organization of teachers.
In 1981, he returned to Massachusetts. For three years he led the Labor Education Center at what is now the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth before retiring with his wife to Chatham, where the family had vacationed for years.
“I don’t know if you could call Batch ‘retired,’ ” said Dougie Bohman, who formerly served on the Chatham Board of Selectmen.
Bohman noted that Mr. Batchelder chaired the Chatham School Committee, was involved in numerous community organizations, and participated in Town Meeting.
“He earned a very fine reputation,” Bohman said. “He formed his opinions and stuck by them, but he was always polite and nice, and you never saw him lose his cool.”
Vida Gavin, a former Chatham schools superintendent who worked with Mr. Batchelder when he headed the School Committee, said he was a “true educator” who persuaded the town to renovate school buildings.
“With every decision he made, he considered the children first,” she said. “They were always number one. He was an outstanding leader and he will be greatly missed.”
In 2005, the town named Mr. Batchelder grand marshal of its Fourth of July Parade.
Mr. Batchelder also served as president of the Chatham Drama Guild and had acted in many plays in the 1950s.
“My father’s love of the theater, especially musical theater, was a hallmark of our family life,” his daughter said. “He passed it along to each of us.”
Even when he was ill, he attended each production at the Monomoy Theatre in Chatham.
An avid sailor, Mr. Batchelder helped found the Friends of Chatham Waterways and received its Captain’s Award in 2008.
A service has been held for Mr. Batchelder, who in addition to his wife, son, and daughter leaves another daughter, Amy Harris of Silver Spring, Md.; a brother, Nelson of Canton; and five grandchildren.
“He was a mediator and a conciliator, in his personal life as much as in his professional life,” Anne said. “He was always available to us, and he was always able to make things turn out better than they would have without him.”Kathleen McKenna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.