Heart to Art

24 Jul 2014

Brett Batterson is currently the Executive Director of Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University in Chicago Illinois. He resides in Aurora Illinois with his wife Veronica, with whom he has two wonderful daughters.

“My father was an artist for a living, but a puppeteer by avocation.”

Brett Batterson grew up in a small city in Davenport, Iowa. In his family of five, he had two older brothers, as well as two loving parents. As a small child, his ears were constantly filled with laughter from afternoon puppet shows, his eyes galvanized by vibrant colors from his father’s paintings. At only five years old, his parents enrolled him in a small children’s theatre. It was there that he excelled. The environment, even at such a young age, excited his senses. He loved being up on stage and portraying the life of another person. In essence, understanding his character’s person without really even ever knowing them. From the start, the arts were a huge element of his upbringing. There was no escaping them, and he had no intention of ever trying.

On June 25th 1966, 48 years ago, Brett’s father suddenly died. The situation seemed horrifically unbelievable, as it took place on an innocent Boy Scout campout with Brett’s older brother. It was a frigid day, and consequently the pool that the troop was offered to go swimming in was unbearably cold. None of the boys wanted to go in. Brett’s father jokingly told them to “stop being such sissies” and dove right in himself. Unknowingly, he had a blood clot outside of his heart that burst almost instantaneously when making contact with the icy water. He died immediately.

Everything changed after his father’s death. Being only seven at the time of his father’s death, Brett now remarks that when losing a father so young, “you worry most about the smaller things, like who's going to tuck you in at night…rather than if you are fifteen, you would worry more about who's going to pay the bills.” Some of these “small things” have stuck with him in vivid memory until now. Although they seemed extremely traumatic at the time, looking back, they are rather comedic. For instance, when he was in 5th grade, all the boys in his middle school were supposed to go to a boy’s night, where they were screening a sex education film. In order to get into the film, each boy’s father had to accompany him. The school board hadn’t even thought about the circumstance that a boy might not have a father. Brett remembers being scared that he may not be able to attend film with all his friends, and even more, humiliated, as his mother fought for his uncle to be allowed to take him instead. Ironically, two minutes into the film, Brett fell asleep. Brett remembers his childhood as full of these small everyday setbacks caused by his father’s death.

However, looking back, there were larger obstacles as well. Paying bills was a day-to-day struggle for his mother, even if he didn’t completely realize it at the tender age of seven. In the 1960s, women weren’t allowed to do the same things they are today. Before his father’s death, Brett’s mother was a housewife, like most women of her time. Shortly after his father’s passing, she had to get a job as a secretary and relearn how to live life, suddenly as a single mother. Doing things like getting a bank loan for the family’s house, something Brett’s father could have done easily, was incredibly hard for her, being a woman. Although Brett says he does not remember specific incidents of the family’s financial struggle, the stress his mother was under is something he remembers extremely clearly.

However, somehow his mother made it through, and even with flying colors. Although, just like her children, after losing her husband, life for her was full of abrupt adjustments, she fought along from working as a secretary to being a promoter of Broadway touring shows, eventually becoming the head of the Children Theatre Company Brett participated in as a child. It was with this theatre group that Brett simultaneously fell in love with the people around him and gained the confidence to express himself in scary situations. Along the way, Brett’s mother also remarried, “to a wonderful man who always tried his best to be there.” Because of his mother, Brett says he has an especially deep respect for strong women, just like his wife Veronica, an author, of whom he is extremely proud.

Brett inevitably became very independent at a young age. Although his older brothers served as excellent role models, little things like being able to prepare dinner for the family at the age of 7 became a routine responsibility. The struggles Brett faced are a part of his story, in fact, he has used them in the hardest times as a source of motivation. This motivation has carried him very far in life, from designing sets for hugely successful plays and living in places such as Tennessee, Detroit, and Chicago. As Brett says, “It’s okay to talk about your parent’s death and use it as your motivation. In truth, it’s even okay to react however you use it to react. The only thing you don’t want to do is give up on the world, other people, or your dreams.”

If you talk to Brett now, he’ll tell you the best gig he’s ever had is the one he has now--the Executive Director of the Roosevelt University Auditorium Theatre. It is there that he runs "Hands Together, Heart to Art Camp", a camp for children and teens who have lost a parent. Brett says when he came to Chicago to work at the Auditorium Theatre, HTHTA was never part of the job description, but it was something he had always dreamed of creating. Ten years and 900 campers later, Brett created a camp just for kids who have lost a parent to express themselves through art. He says the most important thing he wants to teach his campers, as well as every other children and teen suffering the loss of a parent, is that “it will all work out, and it will all get better.” Although in the beginning, the loss happens to feel insurmountable, time will still go on and wounds will begin to heal. Losing your parent is one of the worst situations a child or teen can go through, but it is “by no stretch the end of the world.”

If anything, Brett says the loss changed him into a more sentimental person. For instance, when he and his family go to parties or events, before the end, he makes sure to say goodbye to every person. In the big picture, he says his father’s death made him more of a “people-pleaser person.” As he recalls, his own “father walked out the door for a weekend, and then never came back.” Because of his father’s death, Brett has learned to be kind to people because he “knows [he] might never see them again.” His kindness is clearly reflected by the fact he has served as the best man at six friends weddings, which is considered one of the highest honors you can pay someone. The fact that six people found him that impactful in their lives, Brett says, humbles him.

Brett should inspire us all. He is the prime example of turning an awful situation into something good. His passion and thoughtfulness has influenced hundreds of children who have suffered the loss of a parent. To learn more about Brett and his story, watch this video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtFK7VEx9us




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