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Memories and a Mission: Liberty’s first students return to campus for 50-year reunion

When Ronnie Riggins, of Georgia, first heard about Lynchburg Baptist College (now Liberty University) in the Spring of 1971, there were no state-of-the-art facilities decorating a 7,000-acre campus, no nationally ranked sports teams or hundreds of unique academic programs.

Just a church, a preacher, and a bold vision to change the world.

As a high school senior and new believer in 1971, Riggins took a leap of faith and enrolled in this new college being established by Dr. Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Va.

Riggins, along with the 153 other students in Liberty’s first year, constantly heard Falwell describe his vision of constructing a world-class Christian institution that would send out thousands of evangelical students to impact the world for Christ. But even they, the bricklayers of Falwell’s dream, said they didn’t have the foresight like he did.

“It’s overwhelming. I can’t even put it into words,” said Riggins, who has faithfully led a church in New Cumberland, Pa., for 46 years following his graduation from LBC. “And when I come to Liberty 50 years later and see what God had done here, it is absolutely phenomenal.”

Riggins was one of many original students who congregated on campus this past weekend for a 50-year reunion, coordinated by members of the first class and supported in part by Liberty’s Office of Alumni Relations. (The university will officially kick off its 50th Anniversary celebration this fall.)

These alumni, many who had not been on campus for several years and some who had not returned since graduation, reunited with old friends at Thomas Road Baptist Church’s Bruner Hall on Friday night, singing hymns led by former worship leader Robbie Hiner (who attended LBC in 1972), fellowshipping over dinner, and reminiscing about their years as Liberty’s pioneers.

Liberty’s first students marvel at the new Liberty Arena, a recent campus construct that houses men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball. (Photo by Andrew Snyder)

The weekend also included a two-hour campus tour.

“It’s amazing how God took Dr. Falwell and did something beyond what any of us saw,” said Georgia native Stan Berrong, a member of LBC’s first class. “We were here in 1971 when there was nothing here. It’s been a joy to get together with those who were here in the early days. Now to see what this university has become, it’s a blessing. It’s a blessing to know that we were here during those beginning days.”

Now, the school has “grown into miles and miles of miracles,” he added. “It’s hard to wrap your mind around.”

The Rev. Jonathan Falwell, son of Liberty’s founder and senior pastor at TRBC who was recently announced as Liberty’s new campus pastor, encouraged the alumni on Friday by telling them that the best days are ahead for Liberty. He also reaffirmed a promise that his father made years before: Liberty will never fall prey to the whims of culture and become a secular, liberal institution.

“I just want you to know that the Lynchburg Baptist College, the Liberty that you showed up at 50 years ago, is the same Liberty,” Jonathan Falwell said as he addressed the alumni at Friday’s event. “… Until my dying breath, I will do everything I possibly can to make sure this place stays exactly what God intended for it to be. I will be there fighting every step of the way.”

Today, Liberty University’s total enrollment exceeds 100,000, with over 700 unique programs of study, offered both residentially and online, from the certificate to the doctoral level. Liberty’s diverse student body is represented by all 50 states and nearly 100 countries.

Members of Liberty’s first 1971 enrollment pose with university co-founder Elmer Towns. (Photo by KJ Jugar)

Liberty is also home to 20 NCAA Division 1 athletic programs, 39 Club Sports teams, and over 150 NCAA Division 1 conference titles, in addition to two consecutive football Bowl game victories (’20, ’21).

Liberty’s team of nearly 3,000 full- and part-time faculty have helped to launch thousands of servant leaders into the world to be ambassadors for Christ. By grounding its courses in a Biblical worldview, the university remains focused on its timeless mission of Training Champions for Christ, assisting students in their chosen vocation so they may fulfill the Great Commission.

“It’s thrilling to come here on campus and see so many young people who are gifted, talented, and smart in so many areas,” Riggins said. “God’s hand is on this place, and there will be thousands — maybe millions — of people in heaven because of Liberty University and the vision that started in one man who surrendered to the call of God in his life.”

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