One narrative emerging around the surprisingly resilient Donald Trump portrays the brash billionaire as a final card laid down by Republican blue-collar voters who see their way of life — and their political clout — draining away in a bathtub spiral.
Trump has been a man of last resort before. Right here in Georgia, in fact. And if his Republican presidential machine doesn’t seize upon the tale in the next few weeks, as he and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas battle for Southern votes, then someone in the Trump campaign will be guilty of gross incompetence.
It happened in 1986, in the midst of the worst farm crisis since the Great Depression. In Burke County, on Georgia’s eastern border, farm after farm was folding.
On Feb. 4, Lenard Dozier Hill III, a third-generation occupant of his cotton-and-soybean acreage, was about to have his land sold out from under him. ”That morning, it was going to be auctioned off at the courthouse steps, so he committed suicide,” said Betsy Sharp, his daughter.
In the bedroom of the Hill home, along with the .22-caliber rifle that did the work, was a neat stack of life insurance policies and other papers on the nightstand. Hill had intended for the life insurance payout to cover most of his $300,000 debt and so save the family farm for another generation.
It was a grievous miscalculation. Most, if not all, life insurance policies include a clause that prohibits payment in cases of suicide. “He didn’t realize all that,” Sharp said.
Hill’s desperate act struck a chord. Reporters and TV crews descended on the Waynesboro church where the funeral was held. Vandals painted “farmer killer” on the door of the local bank.
Once the family realized the financial futility of Hill’s suicide, the burden of saving the farm fell on his widow, Annabel Hill, a 66-year-old teacher and social worker with gray hair and large glasses.
The widow was already familiar with Frank Argenbright, a wealthy and white Atlanta businessman who had made a name for himself by organizing the successful effort to save the farm of a black farmer in Cochran named Oscar Lorick.
(Argenbright initially tried to do this anonymously, as a masked benefactor who called himself “A.N. American.” But he was the head of a growing security firm, and his cop friends recognized his voice.)
Argenbright arranged a press conference for Annabel Hill in Atlanta. “It went national,” he said. Today, in the age of the Internet, we use the term “viral.”
Then, as now, clowns came out of the woodwork. In an interview, Argenbright said one of the first calls he received was from a Texas oilman who wanted to come to Atlanta to help. “For some reason I had to pay the ticket,” Argenbright said. First class.
The “oilman” turned out to be a soused escapee from a rehab unit for alcoholics. Argenbright put him on the next flight back to Texas. In coach.
Above is a video, featuring Betsy Sharp, daughter of Lenard and Annabel Hill, put together by Chad Etheridge of Growing America, a news service for farmers.
Argenbright was still at the airport when his assistant called. Someone claiming to be Donald Trump had just rung, offering to help Annabel Hill.
A suspicious Argenbright called the number and demanded proof of identity from the man who answered.
“Herschel Walker works for me,” the voice said. The former University of Georgia running back was the star of the New Jersey Generals, a United States Football League team owned by Trump. That was good enough.
“Well, Mr. Trump, I apologize,” Argenbright said.
Trump told the Atlanta businessman that his wife, Ivana, had seen the report on the Hill family’s plight on the network news, and she suggested that he get involved. The magnate summoned Argenbright and the Hills to New York. After a brief interview, Trump signed onto the cause.
Accounts of what followed differ. In his book “The Art of the Deal,” Trump wrote that, in a phone call, he twisted the arm of a vice president of the Georgia bank that held the Hill mortgage.
“I said to the guy, ‘You listen to me. If you do foreclose, I’ll bring a lawsuit for murder against you and your bank, on the grounds that you harassed Mrs. Hill’s husband to his death.’ All of a sudden, the banker sounded very nervous and said he’d get right back to me. Sometimes it pays to be a little wild,” Trump wrote.
Argenbright, a Trump admirer who would go on to provide security at many of the billionaire’s properties, describes a Trump who was far less sure of himself — and of the public reaction that would follow. And quieter, too. ”It wasn’t the Donald that you see now,” Argenbright said. “He wasn’t sure that people would respond to him. He didn’t want to be embarrassed.”
Trump provided $20,000 to stave off foreclosure of the Hill farm, but his name was initially kept out of the picture. During a press conference on the courthouse steps in Waynesboro announcing the delay, Argenbright said he spoke only of support from “a New York developer.”
But Trump’s identity was easily and quickly guessed. The billionaire and the Georgia farm wife made the rounds of the morning TV shows. Viewers were asked to send their dollars to the “Annabel Hill Fund, Trump Towers, New York, 10022.”
Money poured in, but Trump and a Texas oilman — a real one, this time — provided the last $78,000. A “mortgage-burning” ceremony was scheduled for two days before Christmas. The Hill family was again flown to New York, at Trump’s expense.
“I had just graduated from high school. He flew us to New York, and we went to Trump Towers and had breakfast with him,” said Betsy Sharp, who is now 49 and lives in Augusta.
“We saw a whole different side of him that was kindhearted, to reach out to us, to help us,” the daughter said. “Most people don’t know and see that side. All they see is just the ‘blurt’ that people put on the TV. They don’t see the other side of him, and that’s what my family got to experience.”
Argenbright feels likewise. “He couldn’t have been nicer. He took care of them and stayed in touch with them after that,” Argenbright said. “He had no ulterior motive.”
But Argenbright said that, in advance of that mortgage-burning ceremony in 1986, he did catch a glimpse of the media-savvy presidential candidate that we are watching now.
Trump ordered the waterfalls in his towers turned off, to make it easier for the TV sound technicians. He made sure that at least three tested cigarette lighters were on hand to spark the fire. The mortgage papers were fake, but Trump ordered an assistant to light one up to make sure they would burn quickly and dramatically, said Argenbright, who supplied an engraved tray from Tiffany’s for the ashes.
“Just to watch how detailed he was in understanding the perception of the moment and how significant it was — it was a special time,” Argenbright said. “He was an honorable guy who wanted to do the right thing. If it wasn’t for him, that farm wouldn’t have been saved.”
The Annabel Hill episode was just a small piece of the farm crisis. In the two months that followed, 85 other farms in Burke County alone were scheduled for foreclosure. Other celebrities attempted rescues as well — Willie Nelson’s series of Farm Aid concerts had begun the year before.
But this was the moment that Donald Trump, who had already put his name on the New York City skyline, introduced himself to rural America.
The billionaire’s involvement didn’t spark a revolution. Not then. An off-Broadway play, loosely based on Lenard and Annabel Hill, flared briefly. Annabel Hill, who died in 2011 at age 91, wrote a book about her experience with her pastor. It has never been published.
But for Trump, there is a legacy to be tapped. This week, The Wall Street Journal noted that an analysis of its own polling found that much of Trump’s Southern support comes from “Republican primary voters who live in counties with large African American and Hispanic populations.”
In Georgia, that means farm country — the same rural areas that fueled the Eugene and Herman Talmadge dynasty of the 20th century.
Betsy Sharp, now the manager of a surgery center in Columbia County, attended a Trump rally in Bluffton, S.C., this summer. But the candidate was rushed, and the two only had time to quickly shake hands. If asked, Sharp said she would be happy to campaign with him.
Her brother, by the way, is Leonard Dozier Hill IV. He still lives on the farm that Donald Trump saved.