By Sara Lesley Pope
For the Salisbury Post
I was eating at Cracker Barrel a couple weeks ago when I felt a giant hand come down on my head and a familiar booming voice behind me remarked, Whos paying for this feast? If I were quick enough, I would have said, You are, Dr. Falwell! He proceeded to squeeze my husbands shaved head like a grapefruit as the whole table erupted in laughter. That was Jerry Falwell, always the prankster every kid at Liberty University came to know and love.
I left Salisbury in the fall of 2001, and Ive been a student at Liberty for six years now I finished my undergraduate degree in 2005 and then began law school. When I was the news editor of the student newspaper, I would talk with Falwell nearly every week, usually through e-mail. He was a dynamite interview. He always spoke his convictions, which is rare these days. Falwell never bothered to run his statements through a PR office or take a poll before he gave his opinion. He would often hold up his Bible at the pulpit, and say it was his authority for everything he didnt need a poll to tell him what to believe. He will be remembered as a bulldog on primetime TV, but a big teddy bear to those who knew him personally.
Everyone talks about his stance against homosexuality, but you rarely hear about the focus groups at his church for counseling gays and lesbians. He spoke out against abortion, but he also established the Godparent Home, a clean and safe place for pregnant teens who are scared and have nowhere to turn for help. He established the Elim Home for struggling alcoholics and the CENTER, a downtown ministry in Lynchburg for inner city children. Falwell preached against adultery, and he loved and treasured his one woman for 49 years, his dear Macel. Falwell did not preach without first rolling up his sleeves and acting out what he believed.
Years ago, Falwell arrived home one bitterly cold evening without his shoes or his coat. Macel asked him what had happened. Choking back tears, Falwell explained that he met a man on the street with a tattered old jacket and thread-bear shoes. He had nothing at the time but what he had on, so he gave what he could. That is just one Falwell story that never made headlines, and something he never spoke about.
He always kept his money in his right trouser pocket (he never had a personal bank account). A couple of times I watched him pull a student over to the side of the room, reach into that pocket and place a wad of cash in his or her hand. He would often pick up groups of students on a rainy day, pile them in the back of his black SUV and drive them to their class.
As busy as he was, Falwell always put his family before anything else. He never says no to me, his wife Macel told me in 2004. Anything I want, he makes it happen for me and the children. His eight grandchildren were his biggest joy on Earth. He never misses any of their recitals, ballgames or anything. And they always know they can call their Poppy about anything, Macel said.
Whenever I interviewed him one-on-one, it was like a fireside chat with a Poppy Jerry, the laid-back person he normally was. He had the memory of an elephant.
Miss Lesley, you must be a Southern gal with that accent. Where are you from?
Salisbury, North Carolina, I answered.
The hometown of Liddy Dole, he said, without batting an eye.
I nodded my head affirmatively.
The birthplace of Food Lion, he said.
I was impressed he knew that one.
Where are you from in Salisbury?
I answered that I lived off of exit 70 on Interstate 85.
He leaned back, then said, Webb Road. I had heard before that Falwell had a photographic memory but never really believed it until then.
There were the little things about him, too, that made him so personable. The man had 47 ties all red. His work took him all over the country to five-star restaurants, and he would consistently order chicken fingers, his meal of choice. He installed a mega-horn on his SUV so he could honk at his students as he drove through campus. In his younger years, he crowd-surfed at ball games. And he always opened a door for a lady.
The day he died, I was studying for a final exam when my husband called with the news. One by one, the news agencies started to report it, and hours after his death, some opponents leaped for joy. According to some, he was a bigot and a man of hate. Tell that to the thousands of mourners who have flocked to Lynchburg to pay their last respects to the man who touched them personally. I can only imagine the scores of people who were saved through his ministry that welcomed him into heaven last Tuesday.
Sara Pope lives in Lynchburg, Va., with her husband, Jason. She is entering her third year at Liberty University School of Law and will graduate next May.
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