It was September 1986, and Annabel Hill, 66, was facing an auction where she would lose the farm that had been in her family for five generations.
Hill’s husband, Lenard, had committed suicide eight months earlier, 20 minutes before a scheduled auction, in a last-ditch attempt to save his property with life insurance money. The life insurance money wasn’t enough, covering only $175,000 of debts than ran in excess of $300,000, from two years of a drought that Hill said had ruined their livelihood. Even when several hundred acres of the 1,300-acre Waynesboro, Georgia, farm were sold, the now-widowed Annabel still found herself deep in debt and facing an auction.
That’s when real estate tycoon Donald Trump and a series of other personalities stepped in to help save Hill’s farm.
The push to save Hill’s farm began with Frank Argenbright, a well-regarded Atlanta businessman. Argenbright had helped another farmer keep his land, according to reports. Argenbright asked Hill to appear at a news conference with him in the city. That news conference made its way onto NBC’s Nightly News and was watched by Trump.
“I saw a story on the news about Annabel Hill, who’d hit bottom,” The Donald writes in his book The America We Deserve.
“It was a very sad situation, and I was moved,” Trump writes in The Art of the Deal. “Here were people who’d worked very hard and honestly all their lives, only to see it all crumble before them. To me, it just seemed wrong.”
Trump reached out to Argenbright, who was able to put Trump in touch with bank that held Hill’s mortgage.
“The next morning, I called and got some vice president on the line,” writes Trump. “I explained that I was a businessman from New York, and that I was interested in helping Mrs. Hill. He told me he was sorry, but that it was too late. They were going to auction off the farm, he said, and ‘nothing or no one is going to stop it.’”
It was then, Trump claims, he decided to talk tough to the banker.
“That really got me going,” he writes. “I said to the guy: ‘You listen to me. If you do foreclose, I’ll personally 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 bank officer sounded very nervous and said he’d get right back to me. Sometimes it pays to be a little wild.”
“An hour later I got a call back from the banker, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to work it out, Mr. Trump.’”
At a press conference at the entrance to the Burke County Courthouse where the foreclosure sale was set to begin, Argenbright and members of the Hill family discussed their plan to save the farm. Neighbors and friends of the Hills, who had planned to console the family after their sale, were instead “stunned” with the news of a rescue plan, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Argenbright and Trump had put up the money with Federal Land Bank that morning for a 30-day option to purchase the farmland. The auction was called off less than two hours before it was to begin.
“It was a business decision that waiting a month doesn’t put the bank in any worse position, and [the earnest money shows] that this is no sham,” the bank’s manager said. “In this case, there was a lot of cooperation and effort on their part. We don’t always get that in foreclosure cases.”
Annabel Hill told the media her husband “would be overjoyed with the idea that the land will be saved. Truly, I don’t believe he will have died in vain, because one of these days this land will be coming back to the Hill family, and crops will be raised on it again.”
During the 30-day option period, a donation drive to collect the $187,000 necessary to pay the debt was launched. It instantly took off, thanks in no small part to Trump’s celebrity and his connections.
“By the end of the week, we’d raised $40,000. [Don] Imus alone raised almost $20,000 by appealing to his listeners,” writes Trump in The Art of the Deal. After a successful swarm of donations the debt still stood at $78,000.
“Financially this was obviously no big deal,” writes Trump in The America We Deserve. “But in human terms, there aren’t words to express what Annabel Hill gave to me. Most of us have a few things in life we would never give back, no matter what. Helping Annabel is that way for me.”
That Christmas, at the atrium of the Trump Tower, The Donald and Annabel Hill, flanked by the media and others who had donated, burned Hill’s mortgage.
“It feels wonderful, it really does — especially at this time of the year,” Hill said. ‘I’m just so grateful to these men. It’s really hard with the main person in your family gone. This kind of eases the ache a little bit.”
”I never gave up hope. Farmers don’t ever give up hope,” Mrs. Hill added.
“It was unreal, almost like my mom was Cinderella,” Hill’s daughter Betsy told BuzzFeed News. “We couldn’t believe that we were going up to New York to actually meet Donald Trump in person and sit down and have a meal with him. He was just precious to help save our farm. It was just like we couldn’t believe it.”
“It’s nice to see that other side of a big real estate, investor and businessman to want to help such small, little unknown people,” she added.
At the Christmas event, Trump, struck a similar chord to what he says today.
“We give a lot of money to foreign countries that don’t give a damn about us, but we don’t help the American farmers,” Trump said.
Annabel Hill passed away at the age of 91 in 2011. She said about the motives of Trump’s charity, “the only way I can explain it was God touched his heart.”
Trump kept in touch with Hill for a while after the mortgage burning.
“I would see Annabel, whether it was in church or whether, you know, out in the community and she was always saying, ‘Well, you know I’m praying for Mr. Trump, I am praying for Mr. Trump,’” Marty Baker, a pastor at the local church, told BuzzFeed News. “And she just, you know, really stayed in contact with him some and continually just prayed for him.”
“I saw a side of him that was very caring, very sincere,” Argenbright told Lost Tycoon author Henry Hurt in his book.
“He would call her up and check on her [even after the publicity died out]. There was no feeling of, ‘well, Frank, okay, you’ve done the deal. Annabel’s gone. The publicity is over with. There’s no benefit to Donald Trump now.’ Not any of that ever.”
The Hills, according to Annabel’s son, Jim, who spoke with BuzzFeed News by phone, had never heard of Trump before he called up their family.
“It was a small Southern town,” Jim Hill said.
Jim Hill said that after their farm was saved, the family became the unofficial spokespeople for farmers losing their lands to banks in foreclosure.
“She sort of kind of became the spokesperson of the entire group of farmers that committed suicide or were losing their properties or losing the remainder of their properties,” he said.
Leonard Hill, Annabel’s son, who currently lives on the farm, says the family is deeply indebted to Trump.
“I’ve got three daughters and it allowed them to grow up on the farm,” Leonard Hill told BuzzFeed News. “We have been very blessed, very blessed.”
“My wife was pregnant with our youngest daughter when Mr. Trump came into the picture, and she grew up and decided to be a lawyer and went to the Catholic law school in Washington, D.C., and probably would not have been able to do that without Mr. Trump,” he stated.
“We about lost our names, I wouldn’t even know who I was. It was a tremendous blessing.”
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