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Jerry Falwell speaks at Decatur Baptist Church on August, 21, 2005. To many residents of his hometown, Lynchburg, Va., the good Falwell did is immeasurable.
Daily photo by Dan Henry
Jerry Falwell speaks at Decatur Baptist Church on August, 21, 2005. To many residents of his hometown, Lynchburg, Va., the good Falwell did is immeasurable.

Falwell's legacy entwined with Virginia hometown

By Kristen Gelineau
Associated Press Writer

LYNCHBURG, Va. — There was a time, before Jerry Falwell became a household name, when Lynchburg was just Lynchburg — a small industrial city known for factories and mills.

David Campbell remembers how it used to be, way before the Moral Majority. The city was rougher around the edges then, the 83-year-old, lifelong resident recalls. But Falwell, his friend of many years, was always the same.

Even as a teen, Falwell wanted to do something good with his life, Campbell said. And he would do something good for Lynchburg.

To many residents, the good he did here is immeasurable. His presence focused the attention of the world on this small city surrounded by hills.

The school he founded — Liberty University — now has a spacious campus with about 9,600 students and has become the city's second-largest employer, behind the owner of a local hospital. It has pumped countless dollars into the local economy.

The charismatic evangelist has become synonymous with Lynchburg — a place now known, to some, simply as "Falwell Town."

"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."

The ties linking Falwell with his town and his school were obvious on the face of mourners Wednesday, a day after the minister's death.

'Spirit Rock'

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.

"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."

That influence, however, was not always so welcome. There were a few who 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."

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.

Wendell Walker moved to Lynchburg from Macon, Ga., 33 years ago to attend what is now Liberty University, founded by Falwell in 1971. On Saturday, his daughter will follow in his footsteps as she graduates from his alma mater.

"Lynchburg is an old, traditional city that was not used to a lot of growth," he said. "I've seen how over the years that has changed."

There was no campus at first, said Walker, who was there for the dedication of the school's first building. "What is now Liberty University when I first came was a cow pasture," he said.

He attributes Lynchburg's growth largely to Falwell's enterprise. He hears 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.

Liberty draws attention

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."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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