Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr., may have retold the “Miracle Story” of how Liberty University has become the world’s largest Christian university during its 39th Commencement on Saturday morning, but the packed Williams Stadium crowd only needed to look around them to see the miracle for themselves.
They saw Liberty’s largest graduating class honored — 14,012. The number of graduates has nearly quadrupled in the five years since Falwell, Jr., became chancellor after the sudden death of his father, Liberty’s founder, Dr. Jerry Falwell, Sr. Liberty now enrolls over 90,000 students and will surpass 100,000 in the next 12 months.
They saw thousands more parents, grandparents, siblings, spouses, children and close friends arrive to campus several hours early just so they could support their loved ones and celebrate their achievement on this important day.
They saw more than 2,000 military personnel who have earned their degrees while serving and protecting our country.
And they saw a prominent Virginia businessman honored on the same stage with the founder of Chick-Fil-A and a presumptive Republican presidential nominee (see honorary doctorates below).
No doubt the largest crowd ever for a Liberty Commencement, Saturday’s event was historic in many other ways.
Falwell took the opportunity to formally announce Liberty’s intentions to move its football program to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level, after recently completing various feasibility studies. The move will be finalized when Liberty is invited to join an FBS conference, he said.
Falwell also announced this year that Liberty will top $1 billion in net assets, making it the youngest university in American history to reach this tier.
“My father announced publicly, shortly before his death in 2007, that he was praying for a five-year, $1 billion miracle for Liberty,” he said. “This was at a time when Liberty’s net assets were less than one-tenth that amount. I have to admit many of us thought it would take a generation or more to reach that goal. Over the last five years, though, God has taught us all that there is no limit to what He can do.”
And there’s no limit to what God can do in the lives of people committed to Him, a theme that rang true from the invocation given by Dr. Elmer Towns, co-founder and Dean of the School of Religion and Dean of Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary, to an address by world-renowned evangelist Luis Palau, to Falwell’s charge to the graduates and the speech delivered by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
Romney was introduced by Liberty alumnus Mark DeMoss (’84), a friend of Romney’s who founded the DeMoss Group, a national public relations firm, and whose father was one of Falwell, Sr.’s closest friends and confidants.
Romney paid tribute to Falwell, Sr., many times in his 20-minute speech, recalling having met him in his Boston home seven months before he died. Romney called it a “great life honor” to speak at Liberty’s Commencement.
“Your generosity of spirit humbles me, the welcoming spirit of Liberty is a tribute to the gracious Christian example of your founder,” he said. “In his 73 years of life, Dr. Falwell left a big mark. … The calling Jerry answered was not an easy one. Today we remember him as a courageous and big-hearted minister of the Gospel, who never feared an argument and never hated an adversary. Jerry deserves the tribute he would have treasured most: as a cheerful, confident Champion for Christ.”
Romney said the most confident step Falwell, Sr., ever took “was to open the doors of this school 41 years ago.”
“He believed that Liberty might become one of the most respected Christian universities anywhere on the earth and so it is today,” Romney said. “He believed even when the first graduating class consisted of only 13 students that year after year young Christians would be drawn to such a university in ever great numbers — here you are. Today, thanks to what you have gained here, you leave Liberty with conviction and confidence as your armor. You know what you believe, you know who you are and you know whom you will you serve. Not all colleges instill that kind of confidence.”
Romney spoke briefly about his own convictions, receiving a standing ovation when he stated marriage was a relationship between one man and one woman.
He also spoke about the protection of religious freedom, “the first freedom in our Constitution” and putting that faith into service.
“Whether the cause is justice for the persecuted, compassion for the needy and the sick, or mercy for the child waiting to be born, there is no greater force for good in the nation than Christian conscience in action,” he said.
Service and moral convictions is where “people of different faiths, like yours and mine” can meet in "common purpose," he said.
Romney graduated from Brigham Young University in 1971, and continued on to earn dual degrees from Harvard Law and Harvard Business School. A businessman and career consultant, he co-founded and later served as CEO for the investment firm, Bain Capital.
During a significant time in his career, Romney was asked to take over the managing role of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, which was on the verge of collapse. Under his leadership, the budget was salvaged, the public’s confidence was restored, and Salt Lake City staged one of the most successful games ever held on U.S. soil.
Romney married his childhood friend, Ann, in 1969. They have five sons and 18 grandchildren.
During his welcome speech, as he traditionally does, Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr., shared a few words highlighting some notable graduates in this year’s class.
This year’s oldest graduate, at 77, is Dolores Darrell and Liberty’s youngest is Gabrielle Turnquest, age 17.
Falwell gave special recognition to those graduates who completed their degree through Liberty University Online, many of whom could not have obtained a college degree without it.
“As part of Liberty’s Christian mission we have sought to make Christian education affordable and accessible for as many individuals as possible,” Falwell said. “Liberty University Online has achieved that objective like nothing else could.”
Katherine McInnis began her college journey in 1977 but had to drop out because of financial challenges. She enrolled in Liberty Online as a mother and grandmother and today, on her 53rd birthday, graduated Summa Cum Laude.
In 1998, graduate Kathryn Armstrong broke her back while taking classes at Liberty. She enrolled in Liberty online to finish her degree, and thanks to a miraculous new surgical technique, walked across the stage at graduation, after years of being confined to a wheelchair.
Falwell was reminded of Liberty’s humble beginnings from Mack Rhoades, Jr., who attended Liberty in 1974 when classes were held at the old Thomas Road Baptist Church site and the land on which Williams Stadium now rests was home to a dairy barn.
Rhoades also had to leave Liberty after only one year and later returned to obtain his B.S. in 2010, and this year received his M.A. in Human Services.
Falwell, citing Liberty’s family-friendly atmosphere, said that three sisters — Hannah Ellenburg, Catherine Comfort and Emily Ellenburg — graduated together today and their fourth sister, Sarah Ellenburg, is a freshman. Resident student Katie Raybould told Falwell at last week’s senior picnic that three members of her immediate family would be graduating together today.
Falwell somberly honored Ron King who was awarded his doctorate in ministry today, posthumously. King passed away on Feb. 7 this year and his wife Sharon King, of Huntsville, Ala., was present at today’s ceremony.
He expressed sorrow for her loss, but wanted her to know that Liberty “is not just your husband’s alma mater, but your extended family.”
Falwell also told the miracle story of Patrick Andrews, who so many have come to fondly know as “the man in the orange shirt.” At the ceremony, Andrews was wearing an orange cap.
Andrews began his studies at Liberty in 1994. During that year he was in a car accident that changed his life forever, putting him in a coma for six weeks and giving him severe head trauma. After the accident, Andrews was only capable of taking a limited number of credit hours per semester, but he never quit, following Falwell, Sr.’s repeated admonition.
Today, after nearly two decades of perseverance and determination, Andrews received his bachelor’s degree in communications at 40 years of age.
Falwell said the Class of 2012 is one of a few special classes to enroll at Liberty after his father’s sudden death five years ago.
“The first few classes of students in my tenure as president will always have a special place in our hearts.”
Liberty University’s Board of Trustees conferred three honorary doctorate degrees during the 39th Commencement ceremony.
Worth Harris Carter, Jr.
Worth Harris Carter, Jr. was born in Richmond, Va., in 1937. He began his career as a cashier. The job provided income while he earned a B.A. in political science and history at the University of Richmond. He then attended two years of law school at the University of Virginia, but for financial reasons was unable to finish. Later, he became a bank examiner. Between 1973 And 1998, Carter founded 10 separate community banks. Those 10 banks merged in 2006 to form Carter Bank and Trust where Worth Carter now serves as the chairman and president.
His bank provided Liberty with short-term loans beginning in 1988 and with its first long-term mortgage financing in 1997 after donors like Arthur L. Williams, Jr., gave generously to reduce its debt.
Carter was presented the Doctor of Business degree.
“Worth Carter, Jr. has fought the good fight and has been quietly used by God to make a difference here at Liberty and in the lives of many individuals. You would be wise to follow his example of perseverance, integrity and a strong worth ethic,” said Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr.
S. Truett Cathy
Cathy is the founder of the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain, with over 1,600 locations in 38 states and in the District of Columbia. He was presented the Doctor of Humanities for his “commitment to faith and excellence in business, and for modeling the vision of Liberty University to the world,” Falwell said.
Governor Mitt Romney
Romney, 2012 Republican party nominee for president, was presented with a Doctor of Humanities degree.
“Governor Mitt Romney is on the front lines, representing and defending the uniquely American ideals that are important to this institution, and to the future of our nation,” Falwell said.