Living a Legacy

Looking Back — Students walked not from the Vines Center, but a tent for convocation in 1977 (Archives).

University blossoms over 40-year history

Dr. Jerry Falwell met resistance to Lynchburg Baptist College in an odd place — his home.

His wife, Macel, needed convincing when Falwell revealed his plan of starting a Christian college 40 years ago.

“I said, ‘No, my kids are not going to that school,’” Macel Falwell said with a smile. “I wasn‘t going to let my children go to it because I didn’t think they would get a good education.”

Her daughter, Jeannie, disarmed the couple with a sweet remark.

“Jeannie spoke up and said, ‘Daddy, I’ll go to your school,’” Macel Falwell said, explaining her doubts. “I didn’t think he could do that. I didn’t know everything he said was going to happen would happen.”

Falwell, has watched Lynchburg Baptist College grow from 154 students in 1971 to over 60,000 Liberty University students both on campus and online.

“I’ve been shocked to death,” Falwell said. “But knowing him, I should have known it would happen.”

Falwell faithfully stuck beside her husband, helping raise three children as he led Thomas Road Baptist Church and the growth of new college.

“He had these big dreams and all of the sudden they were fulfilled,” she said. “It made me think maybe he’s got something going here. Everything he said he would do, it got done.”

A wide smile stretches across her face when she talks about her sons stepping up to fulfill their father’s vision.

“Both of the boys have gotten up and done exactly what Jerry would want them to do,” Falwell said. “The kids did exactly what he would have expected of them without him telling them.”

‘I just watched it happen’

Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. remembers his father announcing the college plans during a church service.

“I just watched it happen over the years,” Falwell Jr. said.

Falwell said his father approached each challenge with determination.

“He was ready to do what we are doing now back then,” Falwell Jr. said.

Over the years, his father changed his message from “what it takes to be number one” (the title of his favorite Vince Lombardi speech) to “don’t quit,” a reflection of the university’s struggles over the years.

Falwell spent time grooming his sons to split the leadership responsibilities.

Jerry leads the university and Jonathan serves as senior pastor at Thomas Road Baptist Church.

“He was always planning for the future,” Falwell Jr. said.

Falwell began running the university’s business operations before his father’s death, talking to his dad each morning and late at night to plan.

“He told me, ‘You’ve got the business side down to a science and Jonathan and others can help you with the preaching side of it,’” Falwell Jr. said.

Not just another university

Dr. Jeannie Falwell Savas, a Richmond surgeon, said her father wanted to train Christians in all career fields.

“It’s exciting to see it broadening to meet that larger mission,” said Savas, who graduated from Liberty and the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. “It’s a part of the growth that the university has been able to accommodate more types of students.”

Savas said the university embraces its biblical worldview and purpose.

“It’s not just being another university,” she said.

Savas, who helps train surgeons at the Medical College of Virginia, is pleased to see Liberty expanding degree programs.

“It continues to build lots of diverse programs to train students to be experts in whatever fields they are pursuing,” Savas said.

A new approach

In the college’s early days, Dr. Falwell traveled the country promoting the university through speaking engagements and television programs.

“It was a different era,” Falwell Jr. said. “Dad focused on television.”

Falwell Jr. relies on modern methods, using the Internet to reach students and focusing on campus improvements.

“I thought we had reached a point where we should stop spending so much on television and other ways of promoting the school and instead create something here that would spread by word of mouth,” Falwell Jr. said. “It‘s a different world.”

Falwell Jr., a lawyer, runs the university “like a business,” remaining true to the mission.

“We have better tools, but the same mission,” he said. “I want to still have the Christian mission and worldview and stay true to that.”

Laying spiritual foundations

Jonathan Falwell credits his time at Liberty for strengthening his spiritual foundations.

PRAYER POWER — Students, faculty and Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr. braved wintry weather to pray for the college’s growth in 1977.

“There is such a strong influence at Liberty to not only pursue the academic, but to pursue a deeper relationship and walk with Christ,” Jonathan Falwell said.

Liberty helped shape Jonathan Falwell’s ministry at Thomas Road.

“That influence was born out of the heart of my dad who deeply desired Liberty to be a place where young people would be prepared for whatever God called them to do, but also to be prepared with a passion for Christ and His church,” Jonathan Falwell said.

Thomas Road and Liberty were closely linked in the early years. Jonathan Falwell said multiple college classes often shared the church’s auditorium at the same time, forcing professors to speak softly.

“Liberty began literally in the Sunday school classrooms of TRBC,” Jonathan Falwell said. “I remember in those early days seeing LU (then LBC) students attending classes in stairwells and various parts of the church auditorium.”

‘It’s just been unbelievable’

Dr. Falwell wanted to give college students a Christian education, his wife said.

She recalls him giving the shoes off his feet and coat off his back to strangers.

“He loved everybody and he wanted to do something for everybody,” Macel Falwell said.

Macel Falwell said the school blossomed over the years and her mind quickly changed from those early conversations.

“It is a wonderful school, there is no doubt about it,” Falwell, who received her degree from Liberty in 1987, said.

She said her husband would be pleased.

“I just can’t imagine what it will be. I think it will continue to grow,” Macel Falwell said. “I think it will be beyond what he could even dream of. It’s just been unbelievable.”

‘The sky is the limit’

Jerry Falwell Jr. spent years working with his father to put Liberty on firm financial footing.

After struggling through the 90s, the university took care of long-term debt and invested in online programs and campus improvements, boosting growth.

“I never thought it would happen so quickly,” the chancellor said. “I was amazed as anyone at the magnitude of God’s blessings on this university. It’s like night and day, moving from trying to survive to now suddenly having the resources to build almost anything that we can dream.”

Jerry Falwell Jr. said the school benefits from early leaders committed to the mission.

“Most of the people here helping me run Liberty were here in the early days so there is still that founding spirit, that pioneer attitude and sense of mission,” Falwell said. “That gives us a real leg up when we are competing with schools that are hundreds of years old.”

Falwell Jr. said the university is large enough to stay viable without relying on one individual.

“It will be less about one personality in the future,” Falwell Jr. said.

The chancellor embraces the school’s rich history of “40 years of training champions for Christ,” with an eye on the future.

“We are moving right towards what the original vision was for Liberty,” Falwell Jr. said. “I just want to see it stay unique and see it become the Notre Dame for evangelical Christians. I think the sky is the limit for Liberty. We are so unique.”

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