When Wendell Walker moved to Lynchburg from Macon, Ga., 33 years ago to attend Lynchburg Baptist College, he said the school lacked a proper campus.
“What is now Liberty University, when I first came, was a cow pasture,” he said.
The school, founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, grew over the years and now boasts a spacious campus and 9,600 students. The city changed with it, and is no longer known for its factories and mills.
Like many here, Walker attributes the transformation to Falwell’s enterprise. He said many people attending services at Falwell’s church say they moved to Lynchburg from other states.
“Jerry Falwell put Lynchburg on the map,” Walker said.
The charismatic evangelist, who died Tuesday of apparent heart problems, has become synonymous with Lynchburg, which some now simply call “Falwell Town.”
David Campbell remembers Lynchburg when it was just a small industrial city, before the Moral Majority. The city was rougher then, the 83-year-old, lifelong resident recalls. But Falwell, his friend of many years, always maintained a desire to do something good with his life, Campbell said.
Wielded television's power
Falwell used the power of television to found the Moral Majority and turn the Christian right into a mighty force in American politics. His condemnation of homosexuality, abortion and pornography was praised in some circles and reviled in others, and made Falwell perhaps the most recognizable figure of the evangelical right.
To many residents, Falwell’s contributions to Lynchburg are immeasurable. Liberty University has become the city’s second-largest employer, pumping money dollars into the local economy.
“Lynchburg would be just another little town had he not been born,” said David Benoit, former chaplain of Liberty University’s men’s basketball team and a close friend of Falwell’s. “It just shows you what a visionary and a small town can do if they work together.”
Falwell’s importance in the city and at his school were obvious on the face of mourners Wednesday.
Inside the church Falwell founded, three women wept in front of the flower-laden pulpit, praying out loud for their spiritual leader and his family. At the university’s “Spirit Rock,” a large boulder where students often paint words of hope, messages commemorating the victims of the Virginia Tech tragedy had been replaced with messages commemorating Falwell.
A ubiquitious presence
“He is everywhere,” Liberty senior Sarah LaRoche said as she gazed at the Spirit Rock. “If you look around campus, you can see his influence everywhere.”
Some resented the attention Falwell brought to this city, where even an airport bears the preacher’s name.
Earlier this year, a heated debate erupted over an enormous stone and shrubbery “LU” sign that was constructed on the side of Candler’s Mountain, which overlooks the school and city of 65,200.
“Somebody thought he was trying to change the name of the mountain,” said Falwell’s cousin, Terry Falwell. “Some folks thought he was trying to take over.”
Campbell, who also is curator of the Jerry Falwell Museum, said some locals resented Falwell’s influence even when he was first getting started.
“There were some folks a little jealous of him,” he said. “But it didn’t take long for that jealousy to wear off, because they saw he had a mission.”
‘Becoming a college town’
The Falwell museum, which has drawn visitors from as far away as Ethiopia, chronicles some of that mission. It features a scene of two men — one meant to be Falwell’s father, a nonbeliever and bootlegger, loading liquor into a Model T Ford during the Prohibition era. The message: Even though he was raised by a sinner, Falwell still gave his life to God.
The region has three other private, four-year colleges. But it was Liberty that drew attention, city manager Kimball Payne said. “Lynchburg, in so many ways, is becoming a college town because of Liberty,” Payne said.
The school now draws a steady stream of visitors to its events, and new condos are being built to accommodate the increasing population, Mayor Joan Foster noted.
“You can’t deny he had a huge impact on our community,” she said. “I was in awe of what a visionary he was, and how he made things happen.”