Note: The following is an excerpt from my 2018 Commencement speech at Liberty University.
My family has lived in Virginia since the 1600s and moved from Richmond and nearby Buckingham County in 1834 to purchase a large farm on the northeastern slopes of Liberty Mountain. Descendants still own the land and my father’s 84-year-old twin-brother Gene and his wife JoAnne still live in the house where my dad and Uncle were born.
Every day, I drive past Poplar Forest, the summer home and plantation of Thomas Jefferson who wrote in the Declaration of Independence that we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights and among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
One of the events that has brought great happiness into our family just recently was the birth of Virginia Rose Falwell to our son Wesley and his wife, Laura.
For three months now, Becki and I have taken great joy in becoming grandparents.
You have to admit, she’s a beautiful little girl.
The name Virginia Rose has great significance for the Falwell family, and I want to take a few minutes to tell you a small part of that family story.
Most of my Dad’s experiences were memories of joy, zeal, and adventure — growing up on the other side of the mountain to my left just two miles from here, looking down on where we sit today.
However, at least one of my dad’s experiences was bitter and full of sorrow. He wrote about it in his autobiography which I helped him research and write back in the 1980s. You see, his father Carey Falwell died at the age of fifty-five, when my dad was just fifteen years old. Of course, that was years before I was even born—so I never knew my grandfather.
We wouldn’t be sitting here today had it not been for the tragedies in Carey’s life.
You see, he had a daughter named Virginia; a second daughter named Rosha Geraldine; and a son named Lewis.
But in 1931 when Rosha (another way of saying “Rose”) was eleven she suddenly felt very ill and Carey called the family doctor. She was diagnosed with a severe cold—then pneumonia. But while the doctor was still grasping for a correct diagnosis, Rosha’s appendix burst, and she died suddenly. Carey probably couldn’t understand why a loving God would allow for such a tragedy.
Six months later, tragedy struck again. Carey had a much younger brother named Garland who had been in trouble with the law repeatedly for several years. The family was making plenty of money with a modern hotel and an upscale nightclub and dance hall atop Liberty Mountain, gas stations, restaurants, passenger bus lines that ran between Washington D.C. and Durham, N.C. — you name it, the entrepreneurial Falwells were into it. But Garland was taking dope as it was called then and drinking, and he had a fiery temper when intoxicated. One night the police were called on Garland who was drinking and driving. Garland thought his brother Carey had called the police, so he loaded two pistols and headed over for a confrontation. He almost killed him, firing off shots and grazing Carey—who jumped out a window and ran and got a shotgun. Garland came back around, firing his pistols with the intent to kill Carey. But Carey stumbled backward, whirled around, raised the shotgun and fired blindly.
In a moment’s time—Garland was dead.
The local magistrate declared Carey to be innocent on the grounds of self-defense. And the public knew that Garland had been a terror in the town for years—so nobody thought ill of my grandfather. But my grandfather spent the next seventeen years of his life living with the remorse for what had happened that night.
Now keep following me here.
My Grandparents were about 40 and thought they were done having children with their first three. But with the death of the daughter and the tragedy with Uncle Garland, they decided to have another baby. Instead, they were blessed with two—twin boys. My dad and his brother Gene.
They named my dad “Jerry” in honor of their lost daughter, Rosha Geraldine.
Even so, Carey kept on drinking. He was a successful and hard-driven businessman during all these years, always wearing a three-piece suit and working seven days a week. But every night he’d turn to the bottle and start playing back in his mind the tragic events of 1931. Friends recall how no matter what subject of conversation they started on, Carey eventually turned the conversation back to those tragedies. And interestingly to what a wonderful wife he had in my grandmother, Helen Virginia, who was always a strong Christian and who eventually was instrumental in my father becoming a Christian.
Finally, in the spring and summer of 1948—exactly seventy years ago—my fourteen-year-old father watched his father begin a painful death from cirrhosis of the liver. He would die in October, changing the trajectory of my dad’s life forever.
But I’ve just skipped over the best part of that terrible summer and fall. You see, Carey had a cousin named Virginia McKenna, whose husband was a successful industrialist and who herself was a committed Christian. Along with my Grandmother, she had prayed daily that Carey would become a Christian. She enlisted the help of a man who was a Christian and a friend of Carey’s named Frank Burford — to approach Carey on his deathbed with a local pastor. Carey responded by professing his faith in Christ just weeks before he died.
My father even remembered hearing the death rattles in his lungs the night he died – October 10, 1948.
I personally found his last wallet in an old chest in the 1980s stuffed with business papers but containing only one photograph. It was of his brother, Garland. That wallet is on display in the museum in DeMoss Hall today. It shows just how affected he was by Garland’s death.
Now if you were able to follow all that, then you understand that my own dad would not have been born had it not been for the tragedies he and his parents faced. And, humanly speaking, this University came into existence because of my dad. You would be somewhere today, but you would not be in Lynchburg, Virginia. And I wouldn’t have been born.
The suffering didn’t end with my grandparents. The first 25 years of this university’s history were marked by one financial crisis after another. My father fought many of these battles alone. I joined him in 1987 as a young attorney and helped him endure great hardships until Liberty finally emerged triumphant and became the world-class university it was envisioned to be academically, athletically, and financially. And in the last 11 years since his death, we have finally constructed the world-class facilities you see on campus today.
Of course, we usually can’t make any sense of our sorrows as we are going through them. In fact, on earth, we may never get to see the reason for those sorrows—but God knows what He is doing, and He can be trusted.
So you see, the birth of Virginia Rose Falwell, our sweet granddaughter, is the latest manifestation of God’s faithfulness in one family—my family. And reminds us of the Scripture that says, “Weeping may come for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
All you have to do is look around this campus and look at these wonderful graduates to see how joy grew out of suffering. Whether in joy or in sorrow we all have a higher purpose.
So Graduates, go forth from Liberty in trust and confidence that God has a plan for each of you and your families—just as he did for the Falwell family.