Jerry Falwell's Mountains

LYNCHBURG, Va. — Realtor Brenda Phelps likes to point out the sights to those contemplating a move to this city: "There’s Jerry’s church. There’s Jerry’s mountain." Once, when asked if Jerry Falwell personally owned that land overlooking the city, she said no, Liberty University did — "but it’s Jerry’s mountain."

Lynchburg, Va., in the Roman tradition, claims to be built on seven hills, and Falwell, who died Tuesday at age 73, was a man of many mountains: the Moral Majority, which grew to 6.5 million members in the 1980s before fading; Liberty University, which now claims almost 10,000 students in residence (with 15,000 more in distance learning programs); and the 22,000-member Thomas Road Baptist Church, which he started with 35 members in 1956 in an abandoned Donald Duck Bottling Company plant.

He was also a mountain of a man, with a girth that long put his health in jeopardy, but he remained optimistic about his remaining time in this life. On the phone in March, he told me that he planned to continue as chancellor for another 13 years, until he was 86. In his 1997 autobiography, he wrote that "God may call me home today, and I would have no regrets or complaints, but in my heart of hearts I actually believe that he is going to give me another 20 or 30 years. If you read some day soon that ‘Jerry Falwell has died,’ be assured that I was greatly surprised."

Last month, during a meeting in his office in Liberty’s administration building, the Carter Glass Mansion, he was clearly enjoying life as he sat in the former home of Sen. Carter Glass, Secretary of the Treasury under Woodrow Wilson, surrounded by plaques and art work (including one depicting Mickey Mantle) that displayed his accomplishments and passions (he was a New York Yankees fan). He discussed his willingness to make provocative statements: He didn’t mean to be harsh, but he wanted to tell the truth, and he had long ago realized that bold speaking would bring press attention to issues that otherwise would be ignored.

His pronouncements about homosexuality, in which he expressed love for sinners but hatred for the sin, were what critics most remembered after he collapsed in that office on Tuesday. Later that day in San Francisco, one demonstrator at Castro and 18th streets, sometimes called "the crossroads of Gay America," put down a square of Astroturf to represent Falwell’s grave and invited people to dance on it; some did. But others asked for politeness: "Hey man, regardless of your thoughts, the man is dead and a whole community is grieving. Give it some time before you bash."

Here in Lynchburg, a whole community was grieving. Phelps described how, five days before Falwell died, he handed out diplomas to pre-kindergarten kids at his church’s early learning center. He tapped her grandson on the head with his diploma, hugged others and posed for photos. "It was such a proud thing for us," Phelps recalled. "How loved he was."

She also described how in the 1960s she lived near Falwell’s early church building and her father despised the young pastor: "My daddy absolutely could not stand him." One Sunday churchgoers parked in front of their house, and after that, "my daddy would take kitchen chairs and sit out in the street just so they couldn’t park there. He said to Jerry, ‘You may get all of Lynchburg, but you’ll never get me.’ A couple of years later, Jerry reminded my daddy of that when he baptized him."

Lynchburg has many stories like that, and Falwell knew about how God changes people, including himself. He admitted in his autobiography that he was once a racist. He at times apologized for over-the-top statements. He repeatedly in recent years said that he was not a fundamentalist. But he persevered in his goal for Liberty University’s football team: "One day in a wheelchair, I plan to be at the 50 yard-line in South Bend when we whip Notre Dame … I may be in a coffin, but that’s where we’re headed."