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The Falwell Family Has Deep Roots in Lynchburg but Not in Religion

June 22, 1987 GMT

LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) _ This has been Falwell country for a long time, as you might guess driving by the Falwell Airport or the Falwell Truck and Body Shop, but the name once was associated more with bootlegging than religion.

It is now, of course. The Rev. Jerry Falwell built a national following with his ″Old Time Gospel Hour″ television broadcast and his Moral Majority political organization, and he is in the thick of the fight over the PTL ministry.

His relatives, who remember Falwell’s father as a bootlegger, wish the preacher well as he pleads for money to keep PTL going.

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″I hope he’ll be able to keep the thing afloat,″ cousin Calvin Falwell said. ″The family has always admired him for taking on the challenges he takes.″

A nephew, Carey Falwell, agrees.

″I know the work he does is good work,″ he said. ″Anything he can do to help a Christian organization is good work.″

The Falwells came to Virginia in the 1600s, moving west county by county until they settled in Lynchburg in the 1850s, according to Jerry Falwell Jr., who has completed a family history.

Hezekiah Carey Falwell moved onto a 1,000-acre tract of land east of town, still in the family hands, Jerry Jr. said from his home in Charlottesville, where he recently graduated from the University of Virginia law school. One of Hezekiah’s daughters married George Bruce, who started the first stagecoach business in Lynchburg.

Two generations later, the evangelist’s father, Carey Hezekiah Falwell, became one of the most powerful local citizens. He built a business empire made up of bootlegging, filling stations, a hotel and a nightclub, the Merry Garden, which seated 1,000 and featured such musicians as Tommy Dorsey, Jerry Jr. said.

Carey Falwell went into a long depression after he shot his brother, Garland, to death in 1931. Garland had drunkenly charged him and opened fire during an argument, Jerry Jr. said.

Carey Falwell pleaded self-defense and was acquitted, but he never quite recovered.

″It bothered him so much he started drinking and got cirrhosis of the liver,″ which killed him in 1948, Jerry Jr. said.

The Falwells are not traditionally religious people. Jerry Falwell learned religion from his mother, Helen Beasley Falwell, a fundamentalist who used to turn on religious radio shows so her kids would hear the word as they slept in on Sundays, Jerry Jr. said.

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″His dad was an agnostic and his grandfather was an atheist,″ Jerry Jr. said. ″They were real wealthy and looked down on religion.″

Now, some of the Falwells have become Christians, Jerry Jr. said, but most are not avid churchgoers.

″They don’t hate religion like dad’s dad or dad’s granddad did,″ he said.

After Jerry Falwell became the preacher in the family, he built a massive Christian empire here, from his Thomas Road Baptist Church to Liberty University to his ″Old Time Gospel Hour.″

The other Falwells are involved in secular businesses, but Jerry Jr. said they do not have the power in the community that Carey Falwell wielded.

Calvin Falwell, for example, is a businessman and president of the Lynchburg Mets, the Class A team that once had Dwight Gooden on its roster.

Calvin also is part-owner of Falwell Airport, a small landing strip on the steep slope of a nearby mountain.

″We’ve been flying out of it for 40 years,″ he said, but Jerry Falwell has outgrown the strip. His jet needs a full-instrument landing approach, Calvin Falwell said.