‘Trailblazers’ remember early days
The first Lynchburg Baptist College students rolled up their sleeves to help build the school.
John Johnson, who came to Lynchburg before the college’s second year, joined other students in building the first girls’ dorms and dining hall.
“We were just building on Jerry’s dream,” Johnson, a video producer for Liberty University, said.
Johnson worked alongside a plumber installing faucets, fixtures and showerheads in the girls’ dorms, which resembled cabins.
“All the students were working on them,” Johnson said. “Everybody felt like they were part of a special group.”
Liberty University is preparing to celebrate the school’s 40th anniversary.
Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr., who died in 2007, welcomed 154 students to the new college in 1971. Liberty has grown to include over 60,000 students, including residential and online programs.
“I was not even a teenager yet when the first students arrived, but I remember how enthusiastic and upbeat they were about their pioneer roles in establishing a new college,” Falwell said. “As a preteen and teenager, I sometimes spent more time with Liberty’s earliest students than I did with my own classmates.”
Falwell accompanied his father and student groups all over the country on buses and World War II-era planes to civic auditoriums and churches to spread word about the new Christian college.
“Dad and the students would conduct ‘I Love America’ rallies to promote the new school. Rock groups would sometimes be performing in adjacent venues. In one city, our students were competing to be heard over the music of Led Zeppelin next door,” Falwell said.
Going to change the world
Co- founder Dr. Elmer Towns, instrumental in starting the school, told the first students “this college is going to change the world.”
“For a college that doesn’t own a stick of furniture or a plot of ground, this college will be known around the world,” Towns said, urging each student to be “a world-changer.”
At Falwell’s urging, Towns moved to Lynchburg from Texas in January 1971 to help get the school off the ground.
The college utilized Thomas Road Baptist Church’s building, including the gym and Sunday school rooms.
Students were housed in purchased homes across from the church.
“Buildings don’t make the difference. Programs don’t make the difference. Champions for Christ make the difference,” Towns said.
Falwell’s vision pushed the college forward, Towns said.
We felt special
Vernon Brewer, the college’s first graduate, said excitement swept through the campus.
“Even though it was small, we felt like we were part of something that was going to be big,” Brewer, president of World Help, said.
Brewer said the close-knit student body received practical training.
“Every class, it wouldn’t just be theory, we would apply it,” Brewer said. “It was rather innovative at the time.”
Brewer said Falwell taught the students life lessons during ministry trips.
“I came away from Liberty with a value and work ethic and principles in leadership engrained in me,” Brewer said. “It’s been invaluable.”
Brewer said Falwell believed the school would grow.
“We heard Dr. Falwell talk about it everyday,” Brewer said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be what it is today.”
Brewer and seven other students made up the first graduating class in 1973.
“It was a sense of pride,” he said. “We felt special. We were the start of something new and big.”
They were just trailblazers
Johnson met his wife, Paula Oldham, in college. She and other students traveled with Falwell around the country to perform during his speaking engagements.
“They were just trailblazers,” Johnson, a member of the first graduating class, said. “They were doing stuff nobody else was doing.”
The students often sang while riding the bus each day from their dorms to the church for classes.
“Everyone knew they were part of a pioneering thing,” Johnson said. “Everyone believed in Jerry’s dream.”
Johnson, who studied audio and video in college, received hands-on experience by working in the control room for the Old Time Gospel Hour.
“It was pretty electric,” Johnson said. “Other schools were just an education, but this was an experience and an education.”
Johnson was also drawn to the ministry’s evangelistic approach.
“They were really involved internationally,” Johnson said.
Keep the original vision
Towns said the college grew to over 1,000 students in four years.
“When we reached 50,000, I said, ‘Lord, I believe, help my unbelief,’” Towns said.
Falwell Jr., said the university’s growth is a testament to God’s provisions.
“My father never had any doubts that Liberty University would one day become for Christian young people what Notre Dame is for Roman Catholics or what Brigham Young is for Mormon youth — a world class university — but I think even Dad would be surprised at how swiftly God has moved the school toward his original vision in the last four years. This is truly a miracle institution,” Falwell said.
Brewer said the university remains committed to the original mission.
“The methods change — and they should — and the culture changes, but the vision has never changed,” Brewer said. “I hope Liberty retains that passion for reaching into the culture and impacting the culture.”
Johnson said the university continues to build on its founder’s vision.
“You can still be a part of his dream. That hasn’t died at all; it’s still there,” Johnson said.