“Finish strong.”

If Liberty University Founder Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr. were alive today that is the message he would be preaching to the students during Wednesday convocation.

This year’s graduation marks three years to the day since Dr. Falwell died. It was only days before the 2007 graduation, causing a mix of mourning and celebration to descend on Liberty’s campus.

The graduating class of 2010 were freshmen that year, and in a few short days they will be moving on from Liberty University — the last of the Founder’s Generation.

Dr. Falwell’s legacy will continue to live on, but future generations of students will not have the unique opportunity students who attended Liberty during the first 37 years its history had.

Current law school student Matthew Hegarty graduated in 2007 and was managing editor for the Champion. He had the opportunity to meet Dr. Falwell on three occasions. His first encounter with Dr. Falwell was similar to that of many students.

“We were crossing by Vines and almost got run over by his Denali,” Hegarty said with a smile.

The second occasion Hegarty met Dr. Falwell in Washington D.C., while Hegarty was doing his internship and Dr. Falwell was in town for a Christians United for Israel event.  Dr. Falwell was in a Senate conference room with John Hagee and other pastors.

“I was struck by (Dr. Falwell’s) commanding presence and the ability he had to take any question that possibly had a negative impact and spin it off into a joke or to deal with it in such a way that there was no doubt where he stood,” Hegarty said.

While Hegarty was talking to someone else in the room he felt a crushing arm around him.

“I looked down at my chest and there were two huge arms encircling me and Dr. Falwell actually picked me up, put me down and turned me around. I said ‘Hey Dr. Falwell.’ Then he said, ‘Hey son, nice to meet you. I heard you are thinking about going to law school, well let me introduce you (to Dean Mat Staver),’” Hegarty said.

The final occasion Hegarty met Dr. Falwell was when Dr. Falwell gave a lecture to communications students just months before he died.

According to Hegarty, current students miss out on getting to know the charisma the founder brought to the university.

“I think students miss out on the opportunity to see tangible evidences of a man of faith — that’s what (Dr. Falwell) was.”

Hegarty described the week of Falwell’s death as the weirdest week of his life.

“I had just finished up my investigative reporting final for Professor Huff’s class, (and) we got the news that (Dr. Falwell) was sick. I was very struck by that (and) I went out into the computer lab and basically yelled for everything to a stop and said ‘Hey people, our chancellor is sick, and about an hour later we got the news that he was dead,” Hegarty said.

Hegarty and former Photo Editor Alex Towers went to the Thomas Road sanctuary along with a majority of the student body.

“I heard Ron Godwin’s voice —it was broken and said, ‘A giant has fallen,’” Hegarty said.

Hegarty described the following week as “intense emotion after intense emotion.”

Hegarty remembers being outside DeMoss during the viewing.

“To see the mass of people from all walks of life — white, black, Asian, rich or poor, liberal and conservative — there were so many people whose names I will probably never remember but (you could) see the impact that he had on all those lives.”

Hegarty said graduation that year was “super emotional.”

“Graduation was an experience I will never forget. They showed a video of his life … probably a good half the students were standing up with tears streaming down their faces. I know because I was one of them.”

After Dr. Falwell’s death Hegarty led the Champion to produce a special issue as a tribute to Dr. Falwell and his life.

“It was a decision we made on the spur of the moment and we never looked back,” Hegarty said. “It was something that we knew …. in our heart of hearts that we had to do as our last act of gratefulness to all he had done. “

Towers recalled one of the most touching reactions that students had during that week was painting the spirit rock with a black suit, white shirt and red tie — Falwell’s usual attire.

“Great is thy faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness, morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed thy hand hath provided. Great is thy faithfulness Lord unto me.”

Resident Director Chris Cortes also graduated in 2007. Cortes said Student Leadership does a prayer walk at the beginning of every year and Dwayne Carson always mentions that the students are walking on answered prayers.

“That always hits me real hard,” Cortes said. “Jerry came here, saw … a farm and had a vision that it was going to be this big evangelical Christian school that all these people from all over the world would come to.”

Cortes said the week of graduation in 2007 was crazy. He saw Dr. Falwell at a baseball game two days before he died.

“There was a buzz on campus,” Cortes, who was an RA at the time said.”(My RA partner and I) had people in our room watching the local news … There were all these different people from all walks of life giving their stories about how they knew Jerry and the impact he had on their lives. A lot of secular businesses in town had signs up to remember him.”

Cortes said the spirit of graduation celebration was not dampened, but Dr. Falwell’s death was not overlooked either.

“The mission of Liberty has not changed,” Cortes said. “There are a lot of small things that we used to do that we don’t do anymore. Simple things like when I was an undergrad every Wednesday you knew Jerry was speaking in convocation.”

“Summer and winter and springtime and harvest. Sun, moon and stars in their courses above. Join with all nature in manifold witness to thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.”

Co-founder of Liberty University Dr. Elmer Towns recalled being at a meeting in California when he heard the news about Dr. Falwell’s death. He said he headed home as soon as he could and arrived back in Lynchburg late that evening.

“As I began to drive back to Lynchburg (from the Roanoke airport) I called my wife and told her that I just had to go to Thomas Road Baptist Church. The church was locked and security was standing at the door, but they let me in,” Towns said. “When I finally arrived at the pulpit and stood behind the pulpit, I realized the most tragic thing of all — the voice of Dr. Jerry Falwell will never be heard again in person. It is then that I began to weep uncontrollably.”

While Towns was weeping in the sanctuary, organist Gary Lowe walked in. The new church organ had arrived earlier that day and Lowe was to give Dr. Falwell a private concert that evening.

“The platform at Thomas Road was completely empty, I went and found a chair, sat in the middle of the platform facing the organ and said, ‘The first song you play on that organ has to be the first song we sang in chapel on Sept. 10, 1971 which was “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” Towns said. “As he played I wept without embarrassment, both tears of joy and tears of sorrow for all that God had done at Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University because of Dr. Jerry Falwell.”

“Often I am asked about missing Dr. Jerry Falwell,” Towns said. “I think I miss him for the great vision and direction he had for Liberty University. However, Jerry Falwell Jr. has repeatedly said that he is committed to the vision of his father. So that has been a great comfort to know that what Jerry Falwell Sr. had begun is being carried out by his son, Jerry Falwell Jr.”

“Great is thy faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness, morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed thy hand hath provided. Great is thy faithfulness Lord unto me.”

Despite Dr. Falwell’s death, the Liberty University community has continued to thrive and grow. Current Liberty Chancellor and son of Dr. Falwell, Jerry Falwell Jr, stepped in to fill the shoes of his father just days after his death on May 15.  The transition was emotionally difficult, but Falwell Jr. gathered his courage and took his father’s advice to “never quit.” He has also taken on the responsibility of making sure Dr. Falwell’s visions for Liberty becoming a distinctly Christian school that is able to compete well both academically and athletically with other colleges.

“I believe that no university is ever quite the same after the passing of its founder,” Falwell Jr. said. “The primary goal of Liberty’s second generation of faculty, staff and students should be to keep the university true to its mission, its doctrinal beliefs and its core values, while, at the same time, always enhancing all of the university’s programs.”

It is inevitable that the university would change with the absence of Dr. Falwell. Some traditions like Dr. Falwell encouraging students to “get their ring by spring” and students hopping in Doc’s Denali at a stop sign are no longer present, but Liberty has evolved to create new traditions.

“Nobody will ever replace Dad. He was one of a kind. We all miss his weekly sermons in convocation, encouraging us to never quit and to persevere no matter how great our problems become,” Falwell Jr. said. “We all need to remember those messages of faith and hope and encourage each other daily.”

“The one thing that has been constant at Liberty since it was founded in 1971 has been how much it has changed every year,” Falwell Jr. said. “Change is a good thing if it is the right kind of change.”

Despite the ever-changing Liberty community, its Christian foundation and principals concerning education and athletics will not waver — instead the programs will only increase in potential.

“Dad always said, ‘If it’s Christian it should be better,’” Falwell Jr. said. “Many believed that it was not possible for a university to remain committed to biblical truth and morality while also providing the same quality of academics, NCAA Division I athletics, facilities and programs as major secular universities. Liberty has proven that it is possible, and I want to see that continue for generations.”

Even more change is coming to Liberty’s campus as the class of 2010 will graduate on May 15 — the third anniversary of Dr. Falwell’s death.

“I don’t think the students will change,” Falwell Jr. said. “I think they will continue the tradition and will have the same testimony for Christ that we see in our students now.”

“Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth. Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide. Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow. Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.”

Throughout all the changes Liberty has seen in both the recent years and beginning year, Dr. Ron Godwin was also present. Godwin was around to witness the struggles that Liberty experienced in the early 1990s, and he was a friend of Dr. Falwell’s for more than three decades.

“His pranks, practical jokes and boyishly outrageous behaviors are the stuff of legend. Almost everyone who knew him has a Dr. Falwell story to tell that combines some amazing act of generosity on Doc’s part with an equal dose of laughter and fun,” Godwin said. “But what is almost always unmentioned … is the sober truth, to which only a tiny few of us were privy, that those stories originated during periods of testing and trial in Dr. Falwell’s life that would have brought most other men to their knees.”

Godwin has also played witness to the school’s unprecedented growth in the past three years.

“In recent years, Liberty has without question enjoyed its greatest period of student growth, has dramatically expanded its square footage under roof, has added to and strengthened its infrastructure, greatly enlarged its academic offerings, obtained level six accreditation with SACS, raised the number of terminally degreed faculty to approximately 70 percent and improved its record of NCAA athletic accomplishment several fold.”

Godwin also worked with both Dr. Falwell and Falwell Jr, during which time he has actively supported both founder and current chancellor.

“Today, I sometimes pause during a hectic workday and marvel at what a rare privilege it is to yet be allowed to have a role in helping our Founder’s son to bring to reality he vision that he holds for Liberty’s future.”

As the last of the Jerry Generation steps out into the world as “salt and light soldiers” they must also ensure the legacy that Falwell left to them is passed on to future generations of Liberty students who can develop their own BHAG — Big Hairy Audacious Goal.

“Working with the students was new for me but has been the most rewarding part of my new role,” Falwell Jr. said. “I am excited about Liberty University’s future. I believe the best is yet to come and that this university will have a lasting impact for Christ for generations to come.”

“Great is thy faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness, morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed thy hand hath provided. Great is thy faithfulness Lord unto me.”

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