By Kendal Gron
This Memorial Day marked the passing of George Hatcher, a member of the famous Erwin Nine and a respected Clinchfield railroader, who captured the heart of the community he loved and served.
Born October 14, 1920, Hatcher grew up in the Canah Chapel community of Erwin and was known as a football star at the local high school and college level before he followed his brother, Ed, and went to work for the railroad in 1941. He worked as the fireman for the Clinchfield No. 1, while his brother Ed worked as an engineer.
Mark Stevens, who first got to know Hatcher while he was publisher of The Erwin Record for 13 years, learned more about the rich and exciting lives of the Hatcher brothers while writing “The Clinchfield No. 1: Tennessee’s Legendary Steam Engine,” a book he co-authored with Alf Peoples.
“They were both picked specifically to do that because they were so good at their job,” Stevens said, taking note of the widespread media coverage that surrounded the steam engine. “They were both outgoing and able to talk to people and make them feel welcome. It was just the perfect public relations piece for the railroad and they were the perfect spokespeople. They looked the part, they were the part and they were just great people.”
After his first six months on the railroad, Hatcher enlisted with the U.S. Army Air Corps in June 1942, and in January of 1943 he left to serve in World War II, followed by his brother shortly after. Hatcher became an icon to the area for more than just his railroad service when he was recognized as a member of the Erwin Nine, a group of nine men from the same small community who served in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Although none served together and were all shot down at different times and in different locations, out of the more than 50 Nazi German prison camps, all ended up at the same one. After Hatcher and his fellow prisoners were freed from their captors, he came home to Erwin and thrust himself back into the railroad work that he knew and loved.
“It was an honor to haul whoever was on board,” Hatcher is quoted saying in Steven’s and Peoples’ book. “It was such an exciting time for the people who got to ride. All the time I worked on that steam engine I never had any regrets.”
Peoples worked on the railroad for close to 50 years, five of which were right alongside the Hatcher brothers. He recalls the exuberance and skill that George used to do his work and mentor others along the way.
“He was always good to me and helped me long before I got on the railroad,” People’s said. “I never thought about it until George brought it up the other day, but he said ‘we had a lot of fun on that passenger train didn’t we?’ He never fussed or complained, he was always happy and having fun.”
Hatcher is described by those who had the pleasure to meet him as “humble,” “always willing to help,” “great at everything he did,” “a go getter,” “kind,” “energetic” and “happy”.
“It really is sad that George has passed on, but he had an immensely great life, and he lived life to the fullest,” Stevens said. “Everything he did, he put in 100 percent.”