Lynchburg, Virginia, 1983—An intersection: Liberty Baptist College, Lynchburg College, Jerry Falwell and me. Here’s a fun fact: Liberty and Lynchburg have both become universities. I’m not really sure what turns a college into a university. Obviously, I could look it up, but then I’d have nothing but white space where these two sentences now stand.
I stopped by Lynchburg University last spring. I drove through Virginia with my family after touring a couple of North Carolina schools on Sophie’s radar. Taking advantage of our collegey mood, we swung by Lynchburg for a look. In every way, Lynchburg University appears identical to the Lynchburg College I graduated from in 1984. No wait, there was one new academic building, and the main facility for Business Administration classes, known as Hopwood Hall, now has computers lining the desks. But in every other way, it’s identical.
Liberty University, on the other hand, has become one of the largest schools in the country.
Lynchburg is a pretty campus. In fact, Virginia is a pretty state—at least the part that includes the Blue Ridge mountains. As a college student, unnecessarily disdainful of the residents of my four-year home, I stood on rocky outcroppings in the middle of autumn hikes, looking out over distant farmlands or hollows or mountain lakes and recited my favorite saying of the era: “Virginia is wasted on Virginians.”
Touring the campus with my wife and kids, memories of my college years flooded back: There’s the one lane driveway where I parked my roommate’s motorcycle ‘for a minute’ to run into a dorm, but I got stoned and forgot I drove there, so I walked home. There’s the steep hill I rode down that time in a shopping cart. There’s the place Mike and I dropped the keg we stole and the tap broke off.
I kept my memories to myself.
At Mike’s funeral this week, I saw the whole cast of characters from my college days—well, not Mike, but the rest of them. More memories, more things not to tell my kids.
In 1983, Liberty Baptist College and Thomas Road Baptist MegaChurch were run by Jerry Falwell. Besides serving as President Reagan’s spiritual adviser, he was the principal spokesman for the Moral Majority. Oh, you’re under forty-five? The Moral Majority was a ‘Christian’ organization that expounded right-wing dogma such as the woman’s place is in the home, homosexual acts are a sin, and advocated for Christian prayer in public schools. They littered Lynchburg with KIDS NEED TO PRAY bumper stickers.
In the late sixties and early seventies, American colleges and universities were a place for deep thought, opinion and dissent. All over the country, students took a stand against the evils they witnessed including corporate greed, political overreach and the status quo. College students protested the Vietnam War, environmental degradation, and advocated for civil rights, women’s rights and even gay rights. But by the eighties, students, raised on college-themed movies like Animal House, simply used college as an excuse to party.
I’ve long held a theory about my substance abuse excesses starting in my later years of high school. In 1978, Animal House was a huge success in the theaters. I watched it three times. Like so many others around me, I used it as a blueprint for how young men are supposed to act when away from home. It’s where I learned how to go to college. My heroes in the movie were unconcerned about the consequences of their actions, they simply lived to have a good time. I tried this—with some success—and determined that I was onto something brilliant. This, unfortunately, lasted into my thirties.
My social circle at Lynchburg was the drink-until-dawn crowd. Fueled with various stimulants including a nightly overdose of pharmaceutical-grade caffeine pills, we had plenty of energy to go looking for trouble. My roommate Tom made a cottage industry of chopping up KIDS NEED TO PRAY bumper stickers and reassembling them to say KIDS NEED TO PARTY. He distributed them around the dorm. One Sunday morning, he suggested we attend the televised church service at Thomas Road Baptist Church.
Falwell had a national following, he said. We could wait until the middle of the service and then stage a protest—just like real college students. Despite the intervening decades and the ridiculous amounts of alcohol we drank, I clearly remember us scouring my dormitory hall, waking up other students, trying to come up with plausible church clothes to ensure we got in.
Here’s something interesting: Thomas Road Baptist Church has bouncers. Like so many times in my coming future, a large man deemed that I wasn’t the right kind of person to enter his establishment. We arrived on a crisp spring morning, eight people piled in Mark’s powder-blue Delta 88, and approached the front doors, yelling, chanting, singing, jumping up on each other’s shoulders. Organ music could be heard piped outside. Two men, probably from the defensive line of the Liberty Baptist football team, told us to hit the road or they’d call the cops.
As we drove back to Lynchburg College for dining-hall pancakes and then bed for the rest of the day, we called bullshit on Jerry Falwell. What kind of pastor turns away worshipers at his door? Especially ones who clearly needed saving.