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Fern and Jerry Hill during a 2006 visit to Oklahoma.
Photo by Jerry Lamb

‘To be loved by her was one of the great gifts from above’

Fern Hill, co-founder of Timothy Hill Ranch, blessed the lives of thousands, including Freed-Hardeman President David Shannon, who knew her as "Aunt Fern."

Fern Hill, who co-founded Timothy Hill Ranch with her husband, Jerry, died May 17. She was 86.

Fern Hill

Fern Hill

The Riverhead, N.Y.-based ministry, supported by Churches of Christ, serves abused and neglected children and is named after one of the Hills’ children, Timothy, who died after a tragic accident at age 13.

 Fern Hill was “a mentor and friend to thousands and a beacon of love and kindness,” her obituary reads.

One of those thousands is David Shannon, president of Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn. Here, Shannon shares his memories of “Aunt Fern.”


Everyone who knew Fern has stories about her that sound fictional unless you knew her.

David Shannon will be the 16th president of Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson

David Shannon, 16th president of Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn.

She was Aunt Fern to me and my sister, Rebecca. I was born in Riverhead. We lived on Wildwood Trail a few houses down from her and Uncle Jerry. I have been held and nurtured by this woman longer than any — other than my mother and sister. I have lived in their home.

I remember asking my mother to explain how the Hills were my uncle and aunt. Boy, was I surprised to learn that we weren’t related.

But Fern would be the first to say we are both family of the King.

The combination of the names Jerry and Fern impacts our world like Aquila and Priscilla or even Paul and Barnabas. They powerfully impacted the Lord’s church — even from their college days when they taught a Sunday school class in their car because the church building didn’t have a classroom. They served the Graymere Church of Christ in Columbia, Tenn., where my parents first met them and decided to move to Long Island and serve as vocational missionaries.

Their son Timothy passed at 13 years of age. I remember my mother answering the phone and in stunned silence. She sat on a chair and cried. I had never seen my mother cry before. He was a great young man whose good works still follow him.

Related: Parents, brothers keep boy’s dream alive

Another of their sons, Tom, was my first friend. He passed away recently, and his last season of life was filled with peace that no doubt was an answer to thousands of Fern’s prayers.

Prayers and hospitality

I remember Aunt Fern’s prayer life. She has written a book about God’s work in prayers, “Gifts from Glory.” Being a witness to a few of these stories is amazing.

The combination of the names Jerry and Fern impacts our world like Aquila and Priscilla or even Paul and Barnabas.

While Tracie and I worked for the Timothy Hill ranch I would snoop around a large, beautiful, abandoned house next to the ranch. Fern began to pray for God to provide this house to the ranch. She learned that the owner was willing to sell it. She presented the request to the board of directors of the ranch, but it was denied.

She believed that the board didn’t understand all the good that could come from this facility, but she knew the Lord did. So she prayed for God to simply give them the house. A few days later a stranger walked into Uncle Jerry’s office, laid the paperwork for the house on his desk, and asked if he would accept this house as a gift. It was the first time they had talked.

(Jerry and Fern Hill discuss thankfulness in a “fireside chat” in a November 2020 video. Fern discusses one of her favorite Bible passages, Philippians 4:6-7, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”)

This home became the hospitality house where the Hills lived and hosted thousands of guests. There is no way to count the number of times Fern has washed sheets, folded towels, prepared breakfast.

Youths gather during a retreat at Timothy Hill Ranch.

Youths gather during a retreat at Timothy Hill Ranch.

But her guests experienced so much more. They enjoyed a chapter out of the living Word, a home-cooked breakfast, a few of Jerry’s jokes and a song. It might be “Welcome to the Family.” “Bless be the Tie” or “Til We Meet Again.” And they could sing.

Focused and sporadic, fun and serious

Aunt Fern had a way of bringing the Lord into situations without it seeming like it was her idea. She could pick up hitchhikers and, within a few miles, all would be singing “Amazing Grace.”

She connected with those who were 80 and lived their whole life as faithful Christians and the next hour she could comfortably talk to an addict who had no place to stay.

Aunt Fern was dignified and beautiful. She was focused and sporadic. She was fun and serious. She had faith that moved mountains. To be loved by her was one of the great gifts from above.

Once, while at a conference, our toddler fell in a large hotel pool in the courtyard. Fern, fully clothed for the conference, jumped in to rescue him. She exited with grace as if it were no big deal to save a baby or swim in a long skirt. (How many hundreds of miles did she swim across the lake at Wildwood?)

Aunt Fern was dignified and beautiful. She was focused and sporadic. She was fun and serious. She had faith that moved mountains.

She and Uncle Jerry lived a healthy life. For decades she ate Cambridge bars and shakes. In a kidding way I said to her one morning, “Aunt Fern, you know it doesn’t matter how many Cambridge bars you eat, you are still going to die one day.”

She smiled that confident smile she would flash when she knew she had checkmate.

“No, I am going to live forever,” she said. “I’m the daughter of the King.”

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Filed under: at-risk youths children's homes Children's ministry children's ranch Fern Hill National neglect New York Obituaries Partners Timothy Hill Timothy Hill Ranch Top Stories

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