May 18, 2007
The real Jerry Falwell: The family man, the pastor, the leader of Champions for Christ
by Kevin Roose
WRITER’S NOTE — When I heard about Dr. Falwell’s passing, I kicked myself for writing such a jokey, frivolous profile of him only a week before. Who cares about his favorite ice cream flavor? How could I be so superficial? I should have asked him about his vision for Liberty, his thoughts on world issues, anything of substance.
I spent hours rereading the transcript of our interview, wishing I hadn’t edited out the more serious parts, like when I asked him the famous “Inside the Actors Studio” question – “What would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?” He smiled and answered as he had a thousand times, “That’s easy – ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”
Or when I asked him his biggest wish for Liberty’s graduating class of 2007. “These graduates are facing the biggest challenges of any graduating class in history,” he responded. “My prayer is that our graduates will be spiritually and emotionally prepared to go out and turn the country around.”
As I watched the coverage of Dr. Falwell’s death on Tuesday, however, I felt strangely calmed. The major television networks covered Dr. Falwell’s career as a pastor, his tenure with the Moral Majority, his vision for Liberty, his controversial public statements – but said little of his life beyond the pulpit. I couldn’t help thinking that Dr. Falwell would want us to get the entire picture.
Now, as we remember all Dr. Falwell has done for the Liberty community, and we pause to consider the overwhelming impact he made on America as a political and moral advocate, we cannot and should not forget his lasting impact as a friend.
EDITOR’S NOTE — The following article was previously published in its entirety in the May 8 issue of the Champion. We the staff believed it was appropriate to leave the article in present tense.
Liberty students are no strangers to Dr. Jerry Falwell. His fame is the predominant reason anyone in America has heard of Liberty University, and he has inspired thousands of news articles, dozens of Facebook groups and even a bobblehead doll.
Some Liberty students came here, at least in part, because they hoped (and expected) to watch Dr. Falwell in action.
On one level, Liberty students hear more from Dr. Falwell at convocations, special events and church services – than most college students will hear from their presidents.
We know the legendary tales.
By the end of a freshman’s first semester, he or she can finish any story that starts with, “I walked every inch…” or contains the phrase, “Donald Duck Bottling Co.”
A Liberty sophomore knows the significance of the following figures – that the original attendance of Thomas Road Baptist Church was 35 people, that the first TRBC offering totaled $135, and that the projected number of students at the university for 2020 is 25,000.
Chances are, however, that the average Liberty student does not know much more about Jerry Falwell’s day-to-day life than a loyal viewer from Topeka, Kan., who tunes in to televised services at Thomas Road.
We set out to fix that, sitting down with Dr. Falwell in his office to ask him about his personal life. We looked for the small, humanizing details – the ones Time and Newsweek wouldn’t bother with – the ones only a small inner circle knows about.
Yes, Dr. Falwell’s e-mail newsletter goes out to half a million recipients – but what is his favorite restaurant? Yes, he is a friend of the Bush family – but who cuts his hair?
Big deal, some might respond. However, when you strip away the mammoth accomplishments, Dr. Falwell is just a regular guy who likes to watch “24” and walk around his yard with his wife.
The first thing to know about Dr. Falwell is that his office, located in a wing of the historic Carter Glass Mansion, is very, very nice. Rich, dark wood lines the walls. Dr. Falwell sits in a large, high-back leather chair between two desks. Family pictures fill his bookshelves, including a portrait of his wife next to his computer monitor.
Personal artifacts – no doubt with stories attached to them – fill the room. There is a large wooden eagle in the corner, a framed Mickey Mantle photograph on the desk and a half-dozen globes scattered around the back half of the room. The office feels cozy despite its size.
Dr. Falwell greets all comers with a firm, practiced handshake. His forceful, booming bass voice is striking, perhaps even more so when you meet him in person and realize he doesn’t need a PA system to amplify it.
Dr. Falwell’s desk is clear except for two office phones, a few neat piles of books and papers and a glass bottle of Peach Snapple.
“It’s diet,” Dr. Falwell says, cutting the plastic seal off with a silver utility knife. “I have one every afternoon around three o’clock.”