“‘El Doctor’: Ernest LeRoy Hatch,” Ensign, July 1986, 32
President Ernest LeRoy Hatch sat in the chapel of the Aragon Stake Center in Mexico City, deep in thought. He had recently been called to serve as director of the new Missionary Training Center in Mexico City and was, on this day in 1980, in a training session with one of the first groups of missionaries.
He was troubled by an attitude he had noted over the years in some members of the Church, and now in a few of the young missionaries. Many seemed to feel that General Authorities, mission presidents, regional representatives, and other Church leaders were somehow immune to life’s problems.
As he pondered the problem, President Hatch felt impressed to bear his testimony to the missionaries and tell them about his own background. Perhaps by sharing some of his experiences, he could help them realize that everyone has challenges and difficulties to face in life.
Ernest LeRoy (Roy) Hatch was born to Ernest I. and Lillian Haws Hatch on 31 August 1911 in Colonia Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico. Except for a brief absence during the years of the Mexican Revolution, he has spent his life in Mexico. He recalls that as a child he stood at the fence in front of their home, selling apples to Pancho Villa’s troops as they came through Colonia Juarez.
He has only faint recollections of his mother because she died when he was four and one-half years old. Not long after, his father married Nelle Spilsbury, the local English teacher. Roy Hatch had the highest regard for his new mother. “That noble woman took on a husband and six motherless children, and throughout her life was a mother to us in every sense of the word.”
As a boy and young man, he was familiar with poverty. “I never went hungry, but I know what it is to eat the same thing day in and day out.” Each of the children in the family had only one pair of coarse, locally made shoes. “We went bare-foot to school to save those for Sunday.”
Manual labor was the daily routine—milking, plowing behind a mule, pick and shovel work, hauling water in buckets.
His main source of recreation was sports, and he longed to excel competitively. So between his junior and senior years at the Juarez Stake Academy, he worked for a year in an Arizona smelter, hoping to grow a little. (He weighed only 110 pounds.) Then he returned to school and lettered in baseball, basketball, and track and field.
Roy also worked his way through one year of school at Brigham Young University. During that time, he decided he would make dancing and entertaining his career, since that was what he enjoyed.
He had planned to return to BYU the following year, but at breakfast one morning in early September, Roy’s father told him he should be going on a mission instead.
At the time there were no missionaries in Mexico. In 1925, the president of that country had banished ministers, priests, and missionaries of all faiths. So Elder Hatch spent a year each in Laredo, Texas, and Los Angeles, California, among Spanish-speaking people in what was then called the Mexican Mission.
It was almost time for him to return home when he received a telegram instructing him to report to the mission home in El Paso, Texas. “Upon my arrival, President Harold W. Pratt said he was sending me to Mexico City to see if missionaries could return to Mexico. Since I had been born in Mexico, he felt that I would be the one to send.”
His mission was extended twice while he worked among Saints in Mexican branches, first alone, and then with two companions. He served nearly three years.
Through his experiences, Roy Hatch became so converted to the value of a mission in a young man’s life that later he frequently said if he had to choose between a college education or a mission for his sons, he would choose the mission.
During his mission years, Elder Hatch made the decision that changed the direction of his life—he decided to study medicine. But when Roy returned to Colonia Juarez, his stake president insisted that he first accept a six-month teaching position in the mountain colony of Garcia.
While he was teaching there, he demonstrated dramatically the spunk and zest for life which have become almost legendary among those who know him. He loved to dance, and every Friday afternoon he borrowed or rented a horse to ride forty-five miles home to Colonia Juarez for the Church dance there. Finally, the men in Garcia decided he was pushing their horses too fast, making the trip in eight hours, and refused to lend him one again. He jokingly told them that if he could go down in eight hours on foot, a horse surely ought to make it in six. They promptly replied that he couldn’t do it on foot in ten hours or even twelve—in fact, he probably couldn’t make it at all.
That was all it took.
“I foolishly bragged that next Friday I would go on foot to the dance in Colonia Juarez. It was forty-five miles by the road, but with the cut-offs I took it was probably forty.”
He recalls that he left Garcia at 2:05 P.M. Some of the people who came to see him off told him he would never get halfway to Colonia Juarez.
“But at 8:15 that evening I was seated at the supper table in my Dad’s kitchen—six hours and ten minutes from the time I’d left Garcia. I didn’t do it walking, though. I did a great deal of it running!”
Because he planned to live and practice medicine in Mexico, Brother Hatch attended the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.
“As a general practitioner, I could not have received more thorough training anywhere. The professors were internationally known authorities in their fields, and they taught for their love of medicine and of teaching. They made clinicians of us because they knew that 90 percent of the people we would be seeing would never have access to laboratories, X rays, or specialists. If we didn’t diagnose and treat at the bedside, then who would?”
The years Brother Hatch spent in Mexico City as a bachelor student were lonely. But he carried on a correspondence with Marza Lunt, a young woman he knew who had grown up in Colonia Pacheco. Their friendship blossomed into love, and on 1 January 1942, Roy and Marza were sealed in the Arizona Temple.
“What a blessing she was to my life! She loyally encouraged me when the going was rough, and sacrificed during the lean years,” he says. They eventually became the parents of seven children, three girls and four boys.
To complete his medical training, Brother Hatch chose to do his six months of required social service work in another small Mormon community, Colonia Chuichupa, high in the Sierra Madre Mountains along the Chihuahua-Sonora border.
He records: “Life was primitive and I had no hospital, no nurse, no drugstore within a hundred miles. I shall always be grateful for the self-reliance and clinical training I acquired in this beautiful wilderness. The people loved me and had confidence in me, and that gave me confidence in myself.
“I did all types of work up there. I even bought surgical equipment and performed appendectomies, tonsillectomies, and other minor surgery on the kitchen table!”
Roy took his medical examination in Mexico City in 1945, on the day Japan surrendered to the Allies. “It was a proud day in my life when they congratulated me and handed me the certificate that had cost me eight years of hard study and most of my hair! With a wife and two beautiful daughters, a medical diploma, and a great desire to work, I returned to my hometown, Colonia Juarez, to practice.”
His children agree that even though their father was very busy and the family’s schedule had to revolve around his medical practice, they never felt resentful. Instead, theirs was a feeling of pride because of the service he rendered. To compensate for being away from them so much, he often took them with him in the evenings as he went to make house calls. On other occasions, they took turns going with him to his office in Nuevo Casas Grandes on Saturdays.
“We always had family prayer, and we held a weekly home evening. Dad’s part was to provide the refreshments. This always consisted of some special chocolates he would buy in Nuevo Casas Grandes for the occasion,” says his daughter, Michelle.
The children especially enjoyed trips into the mountains or somewhere else as a family because, says another daughter, Patricia, they felt “that was one time when we got to have Dad all to ourselves without any outside interference.”
Still, if he made advance arrangements for a pack trip into the mountains, word spread quickly, and he would find people waiting for him at his campsite. Some had ridden for hours on horseback. He always packed his medical bag.
The gospel and the priesthood have had an important effect on his medical practice, Brother Hatch says.
“I have always practiced medicine with a prayer in my heart. I’ve always asked for guidance and direction in my work.” But there have been times, he adds, in emergencies, when he has seen the power of the priesthood do what medical science could not.
Once he was called to attend a gravely ill baby he had delivered just three weeks earlier. It was obvious to him that the child was dying of bronchial pneumonia. He did what little he could; it wasn’t much by medical standards because the nearest hospital and oxygen tent were some three hundred miles away over rough dirt roads, and there were no antibiotics.
The baby had not been blessed or given a name. Brother Hatch explained the seriousness of the case and advised the parents to send for the elders.
While the father was gone, the baby made one last effort to draw oxygen into its lungs. Then its chest stopped moving. “With the stethoscope, I vainly sought lung sounds and heartbeats. The baby was dead.”
Just then the grandmother tugged at Brother Hatch’s sleeve and pleaded for him to give the blessing. “You hold the same priesthood and authority. Please bless the baby and name her Christine!” she begged.
“I had faith in the healing power of the priesthood,” he recalls. “In my practice of medicine I had seen health restored when medical resources had been exhausted. However, this was not a matter of healing. Medically speaking, the child had been dead for several minutes.” But still the family pleaded.
“Before such faith, I could not refuse. Taking the baby in my arms, I performed the blessing ordinance, naming the lifeless form Christine. Suddenly words came to my tongue that I had not intended to say. I promised her life—that she would grow to maturity and be a comfort and blessing to her parents.
“I became acutely aware of the promise I had made and trembled at my audacity. As I hesitated, I felt a tremor pass through the tiny body as it drew a long, gasping breath, the first in five minutes. As I concluded the blessing, I could feel muscle tone and movement returning to the limp form.”
He stayed by the baby’s side until she was out of danger. As the years passed, he saw the promises pronounced in her blessing fulfilled.
On several occasions, calls to Church service have interrupted Brother Hatch’s medical practice.
In 1962, he was called to be president of the Mexican Mission, with headquarters in Mexico City. After serving three and a half years Brother Hatch returned to his home and medical practice in Colonia Juarez, where for a short period, he served as bishop of his ward.
August of 1972 will be remembered by most Church members in Mexico as the date of the first area conference held there. For Brother Hatch, however, it is memorable for more dramatic reasons.
In June, he had been called as a regional representative to preside over the Mexico City area, and shortly thereafter he was assigned to speak in the first session of the area conference. Before going to Mexico City, he and Marza planned to accompany their son, Bruce, to the Arizona Temple, where Bruce would be endowed prior to entering the Mexico Veracruz Mission.
But the morning of their planned departure, Marza and Bruce were killed in an automobile accident on the way to pick him up at his office in Nuevo Casas Grandes. The Hatches’ son Paul, also in the car, was so seriously injured that his survival was in doubt.
While funeral arrangements were being made and the family was gathering, Paul underwent surgery. Brother Hatch stayed with him throughout the operation, then sat by his bedside all night.
The area conference was scheduled to begin in ten days. Brother Hatch was devastated and didn’t see how he could possibly fill his speaking assignment. But, as he always had, he “placed his burden upon the Lord” and determined to do his duty. About four days prior to Brother Hatch’s departure, Paul began to improve and was able to accompany his father and brother John to Mexico City.
The opening day of the conference, Brother Hatch remembers, “was one of the hardest days of my life. All the members in the Mexico City area knew my wife. They didn’t know that I had lost her until it was announced in the conference. I imagine five or six hundred people came up to me during the course of the day to offer their condolences. I would just be getting control of myself emotionally, and it would start all over again.
“As soon as the priesthood meeting was over on Saturday evening, I went to the back of the stage. It had been a long, hard day for me, and I didn’t want to have to greet any more people. I was standing by myself when I felt someone put his arm around me. It was President Harold B. Lee. He offered his condolences and said, in part: ‘You know, these things are hard to understand. I promise you that you will be consoled and will know why the Lord took your wife.’
“That’s been a great source of consolation to me, when I think of the promise of President Lee and the peace that came to me afterward.”
Several difficult months transpired, but by the next spring Brother Hatch had married a widow friend from El Paso, Texas, Crenna O’Donal Alvarez. They were married 18 April 1973 in the Arizona Temple.
On Christmas Eve, 1978, he and Crenna were on their way to spend the holidays with their children in the United States when tragedy struck again. Crenna was killed and he was severely injured in an automobile accident.
After Crenna’s death, he went through another difficult period. His children say it was undoubtedly his love for the Lord and his strong testimony of the Gospel that sustained him through the series of trying circumstances he faced.
In spite of the weight of tragedy, Brother Hatch felt he still had some good years of service left service as a doctor and in the Church but he knew he couldn’t do it without a companion by his side.
It wasn’t long before he found that woman in Jeanne Larson, a widow who was working as a secretary in the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. She was also a member of the General Board of the Primary. They were married 7 July 1979 in the Arizona Temple.
In February of 1980, Brother Hatch’s medical practice was once again interrupted when he was called back to the mission field as director of the Missionary Training Center being established in Mexico City. It would serve all the missionaries called from Mexico and Central America.
The Hatches had just begun their assignment when they learned he had cancer. He was operated on in Chihuahua City for removal of a kidney; several months of debilitating cobalt treatments would follow. Again, it was a difficult and trying time, but he faced it with calm determination and faith.
The day of his surgery, his wife, Jeanne, recorded in her journal:
“As I talked with the Lord, a lovely calm spread over me and I had the most profound impression that, yes, we will go ahead and serve as we have been called, and that, yes, Roy is going to be all right.”
By July they resumed their assignment in the Missionary Training Center in Mexico City. Sister Hatch says:
“He was still very sick when we returned to Mexico City. He was in a great deal of pain, but it was time to pick up his assignment. It was something he had to do, so he did it.” They served for more than two years.
The Hatches returned to Colonia Juarez in May 1982. Brother Hatch once again resumed his medical practice, and perhaps the grateful expression of a former patient typified the feeling of everyone in the colonies:
“Has el doctor returned to cure us?” she asked his wife.
The woman looked up toward the sky and said fervently, “Gracias a Dios (Thanks be to God).”
Today, at seventy-five, Brother Hatch follows a rigorous physical fitness program. He loves sports of all kinds. He is an avid reader—two to three books a week on a wide variety of subjects.
What is the source of his energy and zest for life? Brother Hatch laughs and replies, “I’m wound tight. I’ve always said that I have a one hundred-horse-power motor in a fifty-horsepower chassis.”
Throughout his life, he has put that “one hundred horsepower” into service to others, whether in his family, church, or community. Despite the problems and pain he has experienced, he assured the missionaries at the Missionary Training Center:
“All of us have had our trials, and I want you to know that I have never felt that the Lord has dealt unjustly with me. On the contrary, I have always felt that I had cause to rejoice and praise the Lord for his goodness.”