Eugene Ernst, 89, died last week at his home in Paso Robles. He was credited with playing a key role in bringing Twin Cities Hospital to Templeton in 1977.
But few people know that he then struggled to get $1 million returned to the taxpayers of the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital District.
Mr. Ernst was born near the Estrella River outside of Paso Robles. He was a Marine during World War II, fought on three Pacific islands and was wounded.
He was a partner with his three brothers in a successful, large-scale farming business. He was a husband, father and grandfather. He was a lifelong member of Trinity Lutheran Church.
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In the 1970s, he was board president of the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital District. It had been formed in 1946 and was California’s first hospital district. It covered the northernmost part of the North County and part of Monterey County.
Its hospital opened Jan. 2, 1950, in Paso Robles. An intensive and cardiac care wing was added in 1969, but the hospital’s capacity remained at just 32 beds.
The district had trouble affording the ever-increasing medical standards and fire safety requirements. It also couldn’t attract doctors. Only eight or nine remained in the community, and five were planning to retire.
I reported on the hospital directors’ meetings. They were worried that their hospital might not be able to survive.
They eventually decided to offer to close it, if some hospital chain would build a replacement. The county also agreed to close Atascadero General Hospital. Both closed Feb. 7. 1977, the same day Twin Cities opened in Templeton.
The Paso Robles hospital district sold its building and other assets for $1 million. Mr. Ernst and his fellow directors wanted to give that money to the district’s taxpayers. But two lawyers and the county auditor said they couldn’t. The money had to go to the county’s general fund.
Mr. Ernst told me he lay awake nights worrying about how to legally spend the money to benefit district residents. He finally arranged for the city of Paso Robles to become guardian of the money and to spend it according to the district’s instructions.
Later, Mr. Ernst told me, “I really am thankful it’s over.”
The money went to hire school nurses, fund medical scholarships, build senior citizens centers, buy fire department rescue trucks, build a therapy pool and more. Also, $125,000 went toward starting the NCI Affiliates program for assisting developmentally disabled adults.
The hospital district dissolved in 1980.