It was almost exactly 28 years ago that, freshly out of college, I toyed with the idea of my first professional writing adventure. My college roommate Joe Duggan had approached me with the proposition that we freelance a profile piece on the man who was grabbing national headlines with his political activism. We drove down to Lynchburg Va., attended a service at the Thomas Road Baptist Church and then settled in for an hour-long interview with its founder, the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
Yesterday, along with my son, I returned to that church for another service, this time joined by the 6,000 packed inside the building, and thousands more seated at Liberty University's Vines Center and Williams Stadium, to pay my final respects.
His story is one of extraordinary professional accomplishments: The Thomas Road Baptist Church, with 24,000 members; Liberty University, with 27,000 students and 125,000 graduates; "The Old Time Gospel Hour" radio and television programs -- on and on it goes, a ministerial enterprise that operated on a $200 million annual budget. And along the way, he also founded the Moral Majority, the political juggernaut critically instrumental in the election of Ronald Reagan.
That was the professional Falwell. Over years, I came to know Jerry Falwell on a personal basis, not nearly as well as others, but well enough to know -- and say unequivocally -- that he was one of the most gracious, kindly, modest men in the public arena, deeply in love with Jesus Christ, his country and his fellow man.
Which brings sadness. What, then, evokes the sheer venom aimed at him by so many who couldn't wait, and wouldn't allow his family and followers a moment of privacy before unloading broadsides of hate-filled vitriol?
It wasn't hard to disagree with Jerry Falwell. As a Catholic, I could easily differ with many of his theological positions. I didn't always side with him on politics, either. But these disagreements never reached the point of enmity because I could applaud him for so much more. Yet Falwell had many real enemies, men and women who refused to applaud him for anything during his lifetime, instead reserving their ovations for the news of his death.
Falwell, like any great leader, was controversial. True leadership by its very definition always generates controversy. Falwell was controversial because he dared reintroduce morality into the public square, with rhetorical passion -- and sometimes with excessive rhetorical passion.