NEWS- Falwell's wake: Liberty students remember evangelist's personal side

Hours after the founder's death, someone taped an index card with a Bible passage and "We'll miss you!" to the velvet rope surrounding his portrait in the lobby of Liberty's Arthur DeMoss Learning Center.

Befitting the high visibility of the conservative Christianity he preached and the unabashedly controversial way in which he preached it, the Rev. Jerry Falwell's death on Tuesday made national news, but nowhere was the news more somberly greeted than at Lynchburg's Liberty University, the college he founded in his hometown in 1971.

In the immediate aftermath of its chancellor's passing, members of the Liberty community  were each remembering Falwell, who died after being found unconscious in his office, in their own way. One painted the words "The Lord Is Our Strength" on a rock in the main courtyard. Another taped an index card with the words "We'll miss you" and a passage from Second Timothy on a velvet rope surrounding Falwell's painting near the Visitor's Center. Others called into the campus radio station to recount their favorite memories of the man who put the "city of seven hills" on the map.

However, the Liberty campus hardly looked like one in shock or mourning. Instead, the approximately 9,600 residential students seemed to treat the day as just another sunny May afternoon: jogging, studying for finals, moving duffel bags out of dorms to be taken home for the summer. 

And to hear Liberty students tell it, that's how Falwell would have wanted it.

"I was always impressed by his presence at every Liberty event, but he was never a show-off about it," says senior Tati Cunningham of Greenfield, Ohio. "When there was a rock concert on campus or a football game, he wouldn't be up in front of everyone saying, 'Here I am.' He'd be in the back with earplugs or cheering 'Go, Flames!' from his seat."

Falwell founded his church in 1956, created a political group called the Moral Majority in the 1979, and sued Hustler publisher Larry Flynt for disparaging his mother in a fake liquor ad. Although a court in Roanoke awarded Falwell damages, the pornographer in the gold wheelchair ultimately won a unanimous decision from the U.S. Supreme Court.

By the time the rivals came to Charlottesville for a debate at the law school, Flynt was calling Falwell "my pastor," and Falwell was making wisecracks about the landmark free speech case. "We didn't lose until we went to a less-talented jury," said Falwell.

That's not to say Falwell, 73, strutted among his students. The man known informally around the university as "Doc" reportedly acknowledged every student he passed, whether by wave, handshake, high five, or, according to Cunningham, with a more unconventional Liberty tradition.

"He had a train horn installed on his black SUV," she says, "and he would actually drive up onto the sidewalk and trail behind freshmen and then honk at them. It was his friendly way of saying hello."

However, Falwell was more to some students than a smiling face behind a steering wheel. Junior Haley Carr of Atlanta, who will be teaching second graders in Thailand in a few weeks, says her future job wouldn't have been possible without Falwell's personal intervention.

"Since I come from a broken home, I've had to file my federal student aid paperwork as an independent," she explains. "Normally that's not a problem, but this year, since I'm going to Thailand, the rules changed. But when word got to Dr. Falwell, he told me he would see what he could. Sure enough, on Sunday, he talked to the provost, pulled some strings, and now I'm getting to go to Thailand. How cool is it that a man who affected the lives of millions would still take the time to help one girl graduate?"

That personal care was something freshman Silas Blair of Islamorada, Florida says Falwell stressed with the faculty and he cites it as the reason why he chose to come to Liberty.

"All of the faculty here are polite, opening doors for people, being really nice, and serving as a living example of what it means to be Christian," Blair says. "Being here feels like a reconnection to God, and that's because of the example he set."

At press time, the university was still planning to hold its commencement exercises May 18-19, just as Falwell had planned. Cunningham will be among those seniors saying goodbye to Liberty as Liberty says goodbye to its founder– an experience she anticipates will be bittersweet.

"When I first got here, I had a negative impression of him– that he didn't know what was going on," she says, "but now that I'm graduating it's going to be sad for me because I know how involved he was in what we all did, and I know he wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else."

Falwell, seen here last year, last visited Charlottesville for a November 1, 1997 debate at the UVA Law School with Hustler publisher, former legal rival, and eventual friend, Larry Flynt.