Donald Trump’s election may have shocked the nation, but it was no surprise in Georgia. After the votes were counted, the AJC dispatched eight journalists from the capital to the coast to the agricultural south to the mountainous north. Their mission: to meet the people who created the Trump groundswell. This is the sixth in a series of their reports.
As the sun settled on a recent Thursday, Lance Toland lifted off from the Griffin/Spalding County Airport and rocketed south toward his home in Milner in one of his French-made helicopters.
He flew at about 100 mph over the forests and lakes of Spalding County, high enough that the green landscape below seemed to move at a stately pace.
“Can you believe that you were in the city a minute ago?” he shouted above the roar of the rotor.
Toland flew past a neighbor’s $1.8 million bungalow, turned right and skimmed low over a pond. Threading a slot between two trees he tipped up the nose of the Eurocopter to perch on the front lawn of his 400-acre farm.
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“That’s a pretty nice commute, isn’t it?” he said with a smile.
You could say Toland, 62, who has made a fortune in aviation insurance, takes the road less traveled. Except he frequently skips the road altogether, and travels by air.
Shaped by a Dickensian childhood — he lost both parents at age 6 and was shuttled between family members and foster care — Toland worked as a teenager sweeping out hangars and washing down airplanes for $1.25 an hour.
He stumbled into the unregulated world of aviation insurance while flying freight around the country. Today he owns a fleet of airplanes and helicopters, three offices employing about seven, and homes on Sea Island and in Milner.
He may have a few billion less than Donald Trump, but they are both cut from the same cloth. Both have built successful businesses. (Toland started with considerably less than Trump. As in: nothing. Out of every $1.25 he earned, he paid $.75 for flying lessons.)
Both have strong opinions and neither has much of a filter. Both are producers, in the parlance of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” a book that has shaped Toland’s world-view for 35 years.
And Toland hopes fervently that Mr. Trump accomplishes what hero John Galt tries to bring about in the novel: crushing the bureaucracy and shattering the shackles on capitalism.
“I feel like Trump would have been a character out of that book,” said Toland, 62. “He’s not a slave to bureaucracy — he knows the government is here to serve us, we’re not here to serve the government.”
Stepping into Toland’s house, one can see that the teenager who slept in an unheated hangar to save money has come a long way. The beams overhead were hewn from trees cut on the property. The house is sited among ponds and meadows so that the sun sets over the water, and western windows open to the view.
The house also demonstrates Toland’s mechanical ingenuity and practicality. Inside the ponds are coils that serve as heat exchangers, keeping the residence cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The house’s slate roof, copper flashing, stone accents and brick sides need virtually no maintenance.
Fine art and fine firearms
The finer things are not ignored. Among Toland’s eclectic art collection are cels from Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, original Andy Warhols and a Botero.
“This was a great place to raise children,” he said, walking along a golf-cart path toward the grass airstrip at the top of his property. “They learned how to drive here without having to go on public roads.”
The children aren’t completely gone. Daughter Ansley, 27, has stopped by on this day after a few flying lessons from Dad, but then grabs a deer rifle and disappears into the woods to hunt.
This is a Second Amendment household. Toland’s office is the same way.
Last year Toland told an AJC reporter that he requires every member of his staff to obtain a concealed-carry license. Once that’s accomplished, he gifts them with a five-shot handgun that can fire .410 shotgun shells — essentially a hand-held cannon. Everyone comes to work packing.
Toland sees that policy in practical terms: Let the government handle the background check. It saves him the cost of doing his own screening and filters out any bad actors among his employees.
Also he believes in having a little insurance of his own, in case trouble shows up at his door.
The story about Toland and his well-armed employees became a national news item early in 2016, picked up by Fox News and the Daily Beast. It brought some criticism, which doesn’t bother Toland in the least.
“Lance is similar to Donald Trump, they identify with one another,” said former Gov. Sonny Perdue, a friend who drafted Toland to serve on his Aviation Commission during Perdue’s first term.
“Lance is not known for being politically correct, and Trump spoke his mind whether it was received graciously or not,” said Perdue. “Lance has strong opinions about many things, and he saw a kindred spirit in Donald Trump. He doesn’t expect to agree with you, or you to agree with him.”
Still he agrees with Trump about many things:
- Climate change? “I’m a global warming debunker,” said Toland. “We may be getting into a new ice age.”
- The media? “There are no journalists anymore. When you have the media take a position on the election, that’s not journalism, that’s ideology.”
- Globalization? “We’re getting away from globalization with Trump. I do not want anything to do with a new world order, or the Hague. I don’t want Belgium to tell me what to do. Screw Belgium. They got us into World War I.”
A faculty adviser whose advice stuck
He was also inspired by “The Art of the Deal” and, while consulting on insurance, has bought and sold many airplanes and jets, including 19 Pilatus trainers (from Switzerland) on one occasion and 38 British fighter jets on another. “That’s how I made my first million.”
Toland has been headstrong all his life (he says he was “uncontrollable”) and says his behavior caused friction after he was orphaned.
His mother, Annie Ruth, was walking on Hudson Road when she was hit by a car and killed. Lance was 6 years old. That same year, said Toland, his father, William Harper, a Navy aviator, abandoned the family. He and his sister were sent to live with relatives on his mother’s side; one of his uncles took in Nancy and Lance.
From there he went to his grandparents and then ended up in foster care for a year.
Another uncle, Luther Toland, adopted him, though he already had three children. “He worked in a cotton mill,” said Lance. “He was just a hard-working guy. He had three kids and took in another mouth.”
By the time Toland started college, he had his pilot’s license and was flying freight on weekends, while living in an unheated hangar. He eventually joined a fraternity to keep from freezing.
He remembers doing poorly on one set of exams, and a West Georgia professor who gave him a pep talk. Look at me, said the teacher. I ran for Congress and failed, but I’m not going to give up and neither should you.
That professor was, of course, Newt Gingrich.
‘I thought it was a short courtship’
Toland didn’t give up, but he had a few setbacks along the way. When the transport company ran short of work, he discovered that he was ineligible for unemployment because he was a full-time college student.
He says he somehow got a phone call through to the governor, Jimmy Carter, and Carter’s advice to him was “try to stay in school.”
Said Toland, “That really (ticked) me off.”
Toland made the best of it. He went to work for a dairy farmer, who was also a member of the Georgia Farm Bureau. Toland learned property and casualty insurance from the farmer. He was back flying freight for R.D. McSwiggan’s Academy Airlines when McSwiggan asked him to figure how he could reduce his aviation insurance premiums.
“I found out that Atlanta was the center of the world, as far as aviation insurance is concerned,” Toland said, and his business was born. Today, he says, the policies he manages are all “in excess of $100 million.”
The fact that Toland was always about business is one thing that attracted Jan Brown.
Her hopes were not high at their first meeting. A sorority sister set her up on a blind date with Lance, and at the time she thought the sister was talking about another guy. But she grew to admire Toland’s gumption, the fact that he traded his Volkswagen for a broken Jaguar XKE, then fixed the Jaguar himself. “He was busy,” said Jan. “He was working. He actually wrote checks.”
Said Lance, “Twelve years later we got married. I thought it was a short courtship.”
“He had a couple of girlfriends,” said Jan. “When I got a boyfriend then he thought we should get married.”
‘Sonny told me to wear a sport coat’
Toland’s courtship of Trump was quicker. “I told him I was his first voter.”
That was in the spring of 2015, before Trump had announced, though Toland knew it would happen. “He’s been thinking about it for 30 years.”
That spring Trump’s people approached Toland seeking help on an insurance issue: a claim on Trump’s Boeing 757 had been rejected. Toland was able to get satisfaction for his client.
He says he did the work pro-bono for a variety of reasons. It was an easy way to contribute to the Trump campaign. Also, his friend had advised him that sometimes Trump’s subcontractors have a hard time getting paid.
Toland doesn’t put much stock in reports of Trump’s shifty business practices. Merchants do their best to pay as little as possible, buy low and sell high. (Toland’s own philosophy, he says, is different: “I always wanted to perform for people: to meet or exceed expectations.”)
Perdue said Toland’s altruism might have been a symptom of a servant’s heart. “He may have a crust on the outside, but I frankly think he was doing it because he wanted to help.”
Toland did the same for Perdue early in his first campaign, and it opened some doors. Flying Perdue around the state during the gubernatorial campaign of 2002, Toland met movers and shakers. Later, flying Gov. Perdue to a conference of governors in Greensboro, Ga., Toland was invited to meet the main speaker, President George W. Bush. “Sonny told me to wear a sport coat,” said the often-fashion-challenged Toland, “and I heard from his receptionist, ‘The governor requested that you also wear socks.’”
Other articles in the “Making of a Trump voter” series:
- Part I: The African-American woman
- Part II: The South Georgia farmer
- Part III: The intown Atlanta millennial
- Part IV: The working-class suburbanite
- Part V: The Latina immigrant
- Part VII: The evangelical pastors
He’s been briefed by Condoleezza Rice (Bush’s secretary of state), done business with Chuck Yeager and John Travolta.
His reach could expand. In January Perdue, an early supporter, was reportedly Trump’s top choice for secretary of agriculture. Would Toland want to capitalize on his political connections?
“I don’t think he’s a politician,” said Perdue.
Tales of the ‘Aluminum Highway’
Perdue, who describes Toland as “sort of a renaissance man,” would like to see him teach philosophy or history at a state university. Toland’s fascination with aviation history led him to become a member of the boards of the U.S. Air Force Museum of Aviation and the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame.
He contributed $100,000 toward a documentary film about Georgia’s battle against German U-boats, the submarines that sank 400 Merchant Marine ships in the Atlantic in the first half of 1942, taking twice as many lives as the Pearl Harbor attack.
“He’s a bookworm,” said Charles Gilbert, who went to school with Lance Jr. and considers Lance Sr. his second father. Indeed, Toland peppers his texts with quotes from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Alexis de Tocqueville.
As an appreciator of history — and as a man who doesn’t like red tape to get in his way — Toland relishes telling the story of a group of World War II airmen who went for a flight in Toland’s DC-3.
These were seven members of a flight crew, including Jan’s father Col. Lamar Brown, who flew “over the hump,” running supplies from India to China.
“You’re flying over mountains, and all you have is a stop watch, an altimeter and a compass,” said Toland. “It’s nighttime, and you can’t see a damn thing.” The route was called “the aluminum highway” because of all the wrecked airplanes along the way.
Toland foolishly told the men on this reunion that they’d have to fly in shifts because he didn’t have enough seat belts for all seven, and regulations were regulations.
One of them took him aside and said, “Son, I’m a retired federal judge, and we’ll work it out.”
He has their autographs on a photo of his prized DC-3, hanging in a place of pride.