May 8, 2007

Meet the family man, the prankster, the real Dr. Falwell

by Kevin Roose, Life! Reporter
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 bobble-head 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 freshmans 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 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 doesnt 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.

Its diet, Dr. Falwell says, cutting the plastic seal off with a silver utility knife. I have one every afternoon around three oclock. This is another thing you learn very quickly about Dr. Falwell in person - he is a creature of habit.

When asked about his morning routine, he rolls it off briskly: I rise every morning a little before six, I shower and dress and I go right to my study at home. Thats where I do my daily devotional time, with Oswald Chambers My Utmost for His Highest. I read it every day and have for 50 years.

Dr. Falwell has a long list of every-days. Every morning at eight, he meets with Libertys senior management. Every night when he returns home, he walks around his seven-acre yard with Macel, his wife of 49 years.

The variety in his life, a thing of his youth, has been flattened over the years. Dr. Falwell used to wear both blue and black suits with all colors of ties. Just in the last few years, he says, he has started to wear a black suit and a red tie almost every day. And none of the ties are alike, he says, smiling and leaning back in his chair. I can go 40 or 50 days without repeating a red tie.

When asked who cuts his hair, he does not miss a beat. Jimmie Martin. A-Plus Barbershop. Timberlake Road. And while a younger Jerry Falwell might have argued with his barber about length, it is a cut-and-run operation these days. I dont even say anything anymore, he jokes. Its always the same. I go in, sit down and take a nap while he cuts.

It may be the only mid-day rest he gets. Dr. Falwell leads a horrifyingly busy life, even for a man half his age. While many grandparents are asleep before sunset, Dr. Falwell ends most nights after midnight. Combined with his early wakeup, he rarely gets a grandfathers share of sleep. Then again, Jerry Falwell is no typical grandfather.

Well, exactly how youthful is he? Does he have an iPod, for instance?

"No, I do not," he says decisively.

Does he have a Facebook profile? No, he says. I just dont have time to do it myself, he says, gesturing at the piles of papers on his desk, which is a long slab of polished wood the size of a ping-pong table.

Well, what about the Jerry Falwell with 461 friends at Liberty? Is he an impostor?

"I don't have a profile," he restates.

Final technology question: Does he text message?


I do use text messaging. Its really where most communication is today, he says, pulling his slim Motorola RAZR phone from his shirt pocket.

"I have eight grandchildren, and they like to pop me on here. They will say Poppy, Shakers Restaurant (one of Dr. Falwells favorites) five minutes. And Im there."

Okay, just one more technology question: When he text messages, does he use Internet shorthand? Does he abbreviate? Maybe Trusteez, u need 2 c the monogram!, or perhaps lol at ur sermon dr. caner!

"Well, Im not as good at it as my grandchildren, but Ive learned the code, yes," said Falwell.

As with text-messaging, Dr. Falwell is humble enough to admit his few shortcomings.

When asked if he has ever hunted big game, he says he has hunted before, but he admits that he doesnt know if he could kill anything as big as, say, a deer.

When asked about an archived photo that shows him playing the guitar at Baptist Bible College, his alma mater, he says, "I used to play at the guitar. Im not very good. A bunch of my friends and I thought we were musicians  made enough noise to get the police to come, but I don't play regularly."

After answering questions about some of his favorite places and things and clearing up some commonly-held myths about himself, Dr. Falwell gives an unplanned glimpse of what he is good at: making day-to-day decisions as Libertys chancellor. Mid-interview, Dr. Falwell receives a phone call from his son Jerry Jr., Liberty's vice-chancellor.

"Hello?"

As Dr. Falwell would explain later, Jerry Jr. is relaying to his dad the plans for a new bookstore at Liberty and getting his permission to proceed.

Jerry Jr. explains the options while Dr. Falwell rocks back and forth in his chair.

Only Dr. Falwells side of the conversation can be heard: Uh huh&I never heard about that&Well, Im not sure if thats a good thing or not. What I want to know is&.

Jerry Jr. puts his father at ease, laying out the case for the bookstore, including sales figures and other information related to the project.

"Oh, I see," Dr. Falwell says, sipping his Snapple. "I think thatd be a good thing, Jerry. Thats pretty good, and I think it'd look great."

He puts his Snapple bottle on his desk with a thud.

"I'm for it."

It is one of thousands of decisions Dr. Falwell has made about Liberty's expansion in the 36 years since its founding, and it gives a close-up glimpse into his day-to-day work life. Dr. Falwells job is making quick decisions on the make-or-break choices that affect the futures of Liberty and Thomas Road.

He goes about these decisions carefully and methodically, even when he only has a minute or so to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

He gathers information, considers the interests of his organizations and takes into account the facts and figures before making a fast, gut-based decision. His decision-making capability has an absurdly impressive track record - one glance around Liberty's campus is enough to understand that - and the accuracy of his gut instinct may be what separates him most from other pastors or corporate leaders.

So, is Dr. Falwell just a regular guy? Well, yes and no.

The moment you hear one of his stories in person, or hear him conduct official business, you realize that this man has been places. He cannot be reduced to just his personal details. Jerry Falwell is a son of Campbell County, Va. who watches ultimate fighting on TV and brags about his grandchildren. But Dr. Falwell is also a decision-maker and a thinker, and his work ethic is what has made him famous.

Beyond the huge church, the Moral Majority, the founding of Liberty and the hundreds of other accomplishments that bear his name, Dr. Falwell seems at surface level like an average 73-year-old Lynchburg resident. He has favorites, foibles and more in-my-day stories than you can count.

Watching him conduct business and talk candidly about his personal life for an hour is only a glimpse of his two most prominent attributes: a large, charismatic personality and an uncanny ability to make a quick, decisive choice. That simple combination has made all the rest possible.

Please contact the Liberty Champion staff at liberty_champion@yahoo.com.


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