The first time I laid eyes on Jerry Hatfield, he was in drag, in a pink tutu, with heavy makeup and false eyelashes, with a blonde wig. It was the ward talent show, and I was about 15 years old. Our ward, the Woodland Hills Third Ward, had been combined with the First Ward, and we now had an influx of people I didn’t know, including Jerry.
Jerry’s act was the finale of the talent show, and as I recall, he flitted and jumped about to Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” You have to understand that Jerry was a former professional wrestler in his mid-sixties, a massive man, and watching him prance around batting his eyelashes was pretty funny.
A few months later, I was sixteen and a priest in the LDS church. Jerry was the “assistant advisor” for us priests, and I got to know him quite well. He had grown up an orphan in a small town in the Ozarks, and then when the Depression had hit, he had “hit the rails,” riding from place to place in boxcars trying to find work. He said he knew that through it all he had been protected by God. He recounted one night when he was in a boxcar on a train traveling through a blizzard in Nebraska, and he suddenly had the impression that he would freeze to death if he stayed on the train, and he said he had the distinct impression that he should jump out. When he landed in a snow bank and watched the train continue on, he wondered why on earth he had jumped, but he looked around and saw a light in the distance. He made his way through the storm to the light, and he discovered that it was a shed full of pigs. The pigs were sleeping in a pile to keep warm, so he pushed his way into the pile of pigs and slept there the night. In the morning, he walked a mile or so until he found a farm house. He told the farmer that it was lucky he had found the pig shed. The farmer told him that they had no pigs, and they owned all the land for miles around. Jerry was convinced that God had protected him.
Jerry finally found work as a professional wrestler, traveling from town to town issuing bogus challenges to other wrestlers (they would flip a coin to see who would “win”). From there, he played on the defensive line for the Washington Redskins. During World War II he taught a jungle survival course in Maui. After the war, he married and then opened a health club in Hollywood, California where, he said, he had a contract with the movie studios to “dry out the drunk actors.”
Jerry’s wife had mental problems, and after several unsuccessful suicide attempts, she finally succeeded in killing herself. Alone and devastated, Jerry went out to do some yard work a few weeks after her death, and as he trimmed bushes, he could barely hold in the tears. He looked up to see a woman across the fence who was also crying. She told Jerry that her husband had abandoned her and her two little girls. He said that they talked over the next few days and decided that it would be best for them both if they got married. So they did. Jerry’s wife told me that it had taken a year or so before she felt like they were in love, but it had indeed been best.
When the oldest daughter was in high school, she met a Latter-day Saint and began attending church activities. When she told Jerry and Ginny (his wife) that she wanted to be baptized, they decided they had better find out more about the religion, so they invited the missionaries into their home and were baptized shortly thereafter. Jerry kept a little chart in his desk that showed how many people he had brought into the LDS faith. When I saw it, there were more than 90 names. He loved the LDS church and wanted his friends to be as happy as he was.
Just before my senior year in high school, we attended a stake conference at which the local mission president, Hyrum Smith (later of Franklin Planner fame), spoke about how he had taught his priests to invest wisely, and they saved up enough money in a year to take the whole priests quorum to Hawaii. The next time we met, Jerry was pissed. To him, you taught boys to work hard before you taught them to invest. He said, “We’re going to go to Hawaii, and we’re not going to have to invest to do it. We are going to earn the money through hard work.”
And with that, he and I began planning how to do it. At that time, neither our priests quorum “first assistant” (the de facto youth leader) or his assistant attended church at all, leaving me, as secretary, to be the only “leader” involved at all. So, Jerry and I sat down with the other advisor, and we planned how we would get there. We decided we would provide opportunities every Saturday for the priests to earn money. Those who participated would earn money toward their trip. Over the next year we cleared brush, chopped firewood, painted houses, held car washes and pancake breakfasts, and did many other smaller jobs for people in the area. Throughout it all, Jerry made me feel like I was an equal partner in the decision making, and he left the leadership (motivating and organizing the other boys) to me.
During that year we worked almost every Saturday, and some of the people who hadn’t previously attended any of our activities became involved in the work projects (a trip to Hawaii is a powerful motivator. As the weeks passed, I noticed that I was changing. No longer timid and unsure of myself, I was becoming more outgoing and self-confident. I could see that we were going to achieve our goals, and Jerry took every opportunity to praise me for doing good work. He didn’t hesitate to correct me or even reprimand me when I did something wrong, but he always did with a great deal of love. He told me over and over how much he loved me, and I knew he did.
That summer Jerry asked me to work for him (by that time he was a “general contractor,” doing a lot of handyman jobs large and small). We installed fences, built sheds, and put a large covered porch on a house. As we worked together we talked, and he encouraged me to use what I learned from the Hawaii project to set and achieve my life’s goals.
At the end of the summer, we had earned more than enough money for our trip. We had enough to pay for each young man to spend ten days in Hawaii, and we had enough for both our advisors and Ginny to come with us. In fact, we had enough to pay for those who wanted to take some snorkeling classes. We hiked up a volcano, went cliff diving at some waterfalls, swam and surfed, and went to the Polynesian Cultural Center. It was a glorious week, but it was somehow anticlimactic. I had made good friends over that year, and I learned that I could do great things with a little hard work. With the leftover funds, Jerry put together a scrapbook for each of us documenting our year of hard work and our trip.
While I was on my mission, Jerry wrote me faithfully, always with an update on the color of my brother’s hair. He encouraged me, shared his faith with me, and told me he was proud of me. When I returned he gave me a big hug and said simply, “I know the Lord is pleased with you.” When I brought my fiancee home to meet my parents, I took her to meet Jerry. I wanted her to meet the man who had been such an influence on me. Each time I visited California I went to see Jerry, until, when he was in his eighties, Ginny moved him to an assisted-living complex in Arizona. I spoke to him several times on the phone, and he expressed frustration that he had no friends to talk to there. A few months later, my best friend and I planned a road trip to Arizona to visit Jerry, but we learned he had had a massive stroke. I spoke to him on the phone, and he could barely speak. He just told me several times, “I love you, John,” and I told him how much I loved him and how much he had blessed my life. He died a few days later.
I’m 43 years old, and Jerry has been gone more than ten years, but I still have that photo album, which I will always treasure. Much of who I am I owe to this great man. I don’t know why I was thinking about him today, but I wanted you to know about Jerry.