Life Stories

Escapee from WWII Italy lived a rich, artsy, Raleigh life

CorrespondentMay 13, 2013 

LIFESTORIES.BATCHELOR.NE.05213.XXX

Franca Batchelor with one of her paintings in a photo taken in 2011. She died on March 17, 2013.

PHOTO COURTESEY OF THE FRANCA BATCHELOR FAMILY

  • Franca Daddi Batchelor

    Born: July 17, 1929, in Forte dei Marmi, Italy.

    1945: Meets Jack Batchelor at a G.I. dance in Italy.

    1946: Marries Jack Batchelor.

    1947: Moves to the United States.

    1948: Gives birth to daughter Tina.

    1952: Gives birth to son Robert.

    1968: Divorces Jack Batchelor and remarries, moves to New Jersey.

    1970: Divorces second husband and returns to Raleigh.

    1973: Remarries Jack Batchelor.

    2004: Son Robert dies from cancer.

    2005: Widowed.

    2007: Develops cancer.

    Dies: March 17 at her home in Raleigh.

As Allied forces bombed their way through Italy during World War II, Franca, an Italian teenager, hid in the Tuscany hills.

She would later tell her friends and family about the groping hands of German soldiers, and the time the Nazis hanged a villager when he was discovered to be part of the Resistance. During the air raids, she occasionally sneaked out to an orchard, where she’d sit in her favorite apple tree, the vibrations of the blasts shaking her to the core.

She and her family survived, and toward the end of the war she met a quiet American soldier at a dance. That soldier promised to come back for her. Much to her surprise, he did. Jack Batchelor went so far as to re-enlist in order to make his way back to Italy, and the two were soon wed. She was just 17.

By 19 she was pregnant with her first child and had moved to America. She did not know the language, had no friends here, and had no education beyond the eighth grade.

But armed with a zest for life, Batchelor carved out a rich existence for herself in Raleigh, full of close friends, art, cappuccinos and wine. Despite many losses, it seemed her life grew richer with age. She died in March at 83.

Her daughter, Tina Williams of Jacksonville, Fla., said her mother spoke about Italy often, but never in Italian.

“She just picked up English by reading comic books when she got here. She was like an American mom – with an Italian accent,” Williams said.

Batchelor was a stay-at-home mother until the 1960s, when her two children, Tina and son Robert, were school-aged. At that point she ventured out, first working at Balentines Cafeteria in Cameron Village. She later owned her own wallpapering business.

Batchelor was always modest. “I always thought she was extremely intelligent, and she felt that because she didn’t have an education she wasn’t,” Williams said.

In 1970, Batchelor divorced her husband, Jack, and quickly married a man who promised a less traditional existence for her.

Franca moved with her second husband to New Jersey. This union would prove to be even more traditional – restrictive, even – than her first, and she divorced again within a few years.

There was a silver lining to that relationship, however, for while in New Jersey Batchelor began taking art lessons.

“While I was growing up, I never saw her draw,” Williams said.

But apparently art was something Batchelor had always longed to try. From that point on, one of her main joys in life would be working on her oil paintings. Her son described her work as “a blend of the impressionistic masters and the contemporary realists.”

Batchelor returned to Raleigh and remarried Jack. The second iteration of their marriage was more balanced.

“She knew that he would love her and take care of her. And it was a much better marriage. They had come to appreciate each other,” Williams said.

“He just never quit loving her.”

Batchelor continued painting, largely focusing on landscapes and still lifes. Flowers were her favorite.

“She took lessons in Cary from Nell Chadwick for several years. They became close friends and traveled to several art shows around North Carolina and placed in many of them,” Williams said.

“For about 10 years, Mama worked hanging wallpaper to support her painting habit. She was able to devote more time to her passion after giving up her wallpaper career.”

Batchelor got to know many people in her neighborhood thanks to a few open houses she hosted to display and sell her art.

Vic Cononi, a neighbor, fell in love with one painting she made of yellow and white flowers. He asked her to paint a portrait of his home, complete with the 285 azaleas to which he devotes himself. He cherishes it, for now he can admire the azaleas in full bloom year-round.

In 2004, her son Robert died from cancer. He also had HIV, and as a member of the gay community had opened her to a cause close to his own heart, the Alliance of AIDS Services – Carolina. The organization holds an annual fundraiser, Works of Heart, and Batchelor was eager to donate her paintings to the auction.

Batchelor met many of her friends through her son, and she remained close with them long after his death. Though she was staunchly conservative politically, she proved to be just as liberal socially, and highly accepting of everyone.

“I think when my parents learned that my brother had tested positive for the AIDS virus , their views on homosexuality changed,” Williams said. “They were both very accepting of my brother and his friends, so they had many people in their home over time. After Robert died, his gay friends were a kind of connection for them.”

“She was like a surrogate mother to a lot of men that didn’t have mothers close by, or their mothers may have died already. Or maybe due to their lifestyle the family wasn’t close,” said friend and neighbor John Gaitenby.

Gaitenby, also an artist, visited Batchelor at her home at least once a week for over 20 years. “She made a very good cappuccino,” he noted.

He and his partner, Bob Newell, made frequent trips to Italy and made sure to visit Batchelor’s hometown. She made extended visits to Tuscany as well.

“When we go to Italy, they treat us like family,” Newell said. A year after Robert died, Batchelor’s husband died from heart problems. She struggled, but friends and family say she was amazingly stoic through both losses.

Once reality set in, Batchelor embraced her new independent existence.

“She could really be herself. She had never had that,” Williams said. For the first time since she was 17, there was no one to cook for or clean up after.

She regularly entertained and visited local art museums.

“If you went to her house, she always offered you a glass of wine and always had Italian opera singers on,” said friend Paul Fomberg.

Batchelor was first diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007, and it was treated successfully at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. A few years later, another cancer was discovered, and it traveled to her lungs very rapidly despite treatment.

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