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Heritage Snapshot: 178

By Richard Schaefer
Community Writer
05/15/2023 at 03:20 PM

Rodney E. Willard, MD, is a descendant of Alexander Hamilton Willard, a blacksmith on the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition. He was born on July 21, 1927 in the old St. Helena Sanitarium, in the Napa Valley, near St. Helena, California. He is the oldest of six siblings. A company physician at the Phelps Dodge Copper Corporation clinic in Clarkdale, Arizona, and an inspirational teacher at Arizona Academy, had a major impact on Rodney’s decision to become a physician. After living in Arizona during the Depression, in the summer of 1943, the Willards moved to Loma Linda.

Rodney was drafted into the United States Army during his first year at La Sierra College and became a surgical tech at Fitzsimmons General Hospital in Aurora, Colorado. He was then assigned to Dibble General Hospital, an Army hospital in Menlo Park. From there he was assigned to field units, and finished his active duty as a surgical tech in the battalion aid station of the 349th Engineers. Because of a Sabbath conflict, Rodney faced court-martial charges of failing to obey an officer. Charges were dropped after a visit by Elder Frank Wyman, a retired SDA camp pastor and the conference religious liberty secretary to the unit’s commanding officer. He was honorably discharged from the Army at the end of November 1946. Because he had promised God that if he ever got home from the military unscathed he would study for the ministry, he graduated from the ministerial program at La Sierra College in 1950.

In the meantime, Rodney married Barbara Ruth Hastings on June 7, 1948. Barbara, a teacher at the Loma Linda Elementary School, invited all of her students to sit on the front row at their wedding in the Hill Church. Mrs. Willard became this author’s 3rd grade teacher. I remember that all of us little boys were in love with Mrs. Willard. Rodney and Barbara have two sons and two daughters.  

When Rodney didn’t get a ministerial internship he became an electrician and lifeguard in Loma Linda. At the prodding of former Army buddies and classmates, he applied to medical school and was admitted to CME in 1952. In order to meet living expenses while in his junior and senior years of medical school, he worked as a lab tech at the White Memorial Hospital nights, weekends, and during vacations. He graduated from CME in 1956. 

In order to pay off medical school debts, Rodney dropped out of a residency at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan, and entered family practice in Dearborn, Michigan, during which he delivered about 100 babies a year for five years. He then completed a pathology residency at Emory University and a fellowship in clinical chemistry at Yale University. Finally at age 40 in 1967 he passed his specialty boards. An old family friend and pastor, Jerry L. Pettis, Loma Linda University vice president for public relations and development, invited Rodney to join the Loma Linda University School of Medicine faculty, just about the time Pettis was elected to the United States Congress. 

For 28 years, as the pathologist of record for the Monument Valley Adventist Hospital, Dr. Willard, also a pilot, flew to Utah once a month to conduct in-service education for the staff and to sign lab procedures and quality assurance records which helped the hospital meet accreditation requirements. He arranged for surgical specimens to be shipped to Loma Linda for processing and then sent results back to Monument Valley. 

Over the years Dr. Willard made a priority to be actively involved in organized medicine, particularly in leadership positions with the American Medical Association and the San Bernardino County Medical Society, and to motivate student physicians to do the same. Dr. Willard’s greatest joy at Loma Linda was in teaching.

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