This morning at 6:30 a.m. in Colorado, I awoke to news from my nephew in Virginia Beach that religious broadcaster Pat Robertson had died. My phone and email soon began buzzing with others back east being sure that I was aware. It was a solemn occasion which I have known, of course, would one-day come.
In April 1983 I was a hard-drinking college frat-boy senior, far more focused on my life on the tennis team than anything academic. I grew up in church and had professed my faith in Jesus Christ as a youngster but, at the time, I surely was not chasing Him very closely.
My family no doubt prayed for me steadily, and my brother gave me a book for my birthday that April, written by a man whose name I was unfamiliar with: Pat Robertson. The book was called The Secret Kingdom and, at the time, it meant little to me other than that I had enormous love and respect for my brother.
Upon graduation in May, I began reading the book—because my brother and his family were spending a week at our house after my graduation. I always planned that I would rededicate my life to the Lord after college, as naive as that now seems. That book played a huge role in my coming Spiritual development, basically showing me that the Bible is not a relic to lie on a shelf but a guidebook for the daily administration of one’s life.
The book jacket proclaimed Pat Robertson was a lawyer, which impressed me. He was, primarily, host of a daily television news magazine show called The 700 Club, and I began my years-long practice of being a nightly viewer.
Still young in my career at age 22, I developed a strong desire to work for the Christian broadcast pioneer. Having no avenue to do that, I wrote the customary letters and made calls, all to no avail of course, among the thousands of others who had the same desire.
Eventually, however, I felt called by God to enroll at Pat’s graduate university. Back then, it was called CBN University—now Regent University. It was named for the television ministry he founded. At the time of its start, Pat moved from New York City to Hampton Roads, Virginia, with a wife, three children, and only $70 to his name. I always noticed that CBN’s first broadcast happened in 1961, the year I was born. Most of the network’s founding celebrations (held April 29th – my birthday) highlighted our first English settlers, who dedicated a cross on the shores of what would be later called Virginia Beach.
I was accepted for enrollment at the university and began studying for a masters degree in theology. My felt calling from God was to be an evangelist but, upon graduation, doors for that had not opened.
Pat Robertson was running for president at the time, seeking the Republican nomination among seven other candidates. He came in third after an impressive second place finish over a sitting vice president in the Iowa Caucus, which was held February 8, 1988.
A friend invited me to begin volunteering at the campaign and I eagerly accepted the offer. I volunteered five afternoons each week, all the while working as a waiter at night. I write this at age 62 and can honestly attest that every job I have held in the ensuing decades came as a domino effect from that volunteer opportunity, which turned into a full-time job after four months.
I will state clearly that I was never a close Robertson confident, hardly. I was a simply a gofer at first, then an advance man, then a political biographer with my 2009 textbook on his political activities. In between those roles, I spent a few amazing months as his driver, where I got to know him personally. My admiration and esteem did not waiver with that up close and personal access.
But before all that, I was his waiter, as he sometimes frequented the Shoney’s restaurant where I worked, located just across the street from his CBN headquarters.
When the campaign needed a driver for Pat, his personal aide at the time phoned him to seek approval of me. Pat did not recognize my name. Upon being told that I had worked for the campaign, and attended the university, Pat answered we had never met. “He said you might remember him from Shoney’s,” came the final plea. “Oh yes, he’s a delightful young man. He’ll be fine,” said Pat.
In the summer 1988, I was supposed to go with him for a post-campaign trip to New Hampshire. In making the hotel arrangements, I had been answering questions about Salvation in Christ with the desk clerk. I still recall her name, Diedra. But in the end, I did not accompany Pat on the trip.
Pat returned from the Granite State and when I met him at the Norfolk airport, he said: “Joel, I don’t know what you said to that little girl at the hotel, but she sure was disappointed that you weren’t with me.”
I could only imagine what he must have thought.
“We were talking about the Lord,” I said. “What?” he asked in the busy airport concourse.
“The LORD,” I said again, more loudly.
“Well then call her back!” he said.
After the campaign ended, I worked for Pat’s son Gordon for a while, and then helped start the Christian Coalition, where I completed a total of fourteen years in the Robertson arena.
Known by employees and viewers alike simply as “Pat,” he hosted his daily program The 700 Club for over 62 years, including on each episode at least one prayer for his viewers to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
For the next two decades, over and over, I met someone who later called me for a job, even concluding with my opportunity to work at Focus. I have often wondered what Pat would think knowing his one-time driver ended up in the C-suite at Focus on the Family. I hope he would be pleased.
Pat Robertson was many things: broadcaster, entrepreneur, educator, politician, but in his heart he simply wanted people to know Jesus. And through his many auspices, I believe that, with great respect to evangelist Billy Graham and Cru founder Bill Bright, Pat was responsible, thanks to the exponential reach of global television, for more people worldwide coming to faith in Jesus than any other American.
All of us at Focus on the Family pray for the Robertson family, and our friends at CBN and Regent University.
Pat Robertson made a huge impact on the world, and changed many lives, including mine.