Published December 22, 2009
TULSA, Okla. – For decades, Oral Roberts deftly used television to become one of the nation's most recognized and influential preachers. On Monday, that same medium was used to broadcast the memorial service for the godfather of TV evangelism to tens of millions of homes across the world.
At Roberts' namesake university in south Tulsa, about 4,000 people — some who waited hours in their cars for the doors to open — packed a campus arena to pay final tribute to the charismatic leader who rose from poverty and humble tent revivals to build a multimillion-dollar ministry so enormous that it had its own ZIP code.
Roberts died last week of complications from pneumonia in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 91.
"You sent us a man who we know and loved, and who walked with God and never gave up the common touch," fellow TV evangelist Pat Robertson said during the ceremony's opening prayer. "I know you broke the mold with Oral."
The event was part spectacle, carried live by the Inspiration Network and its international counterpart, which can reach about 140 million homes.
The guest list was a Who's Who of TV evangelists — most of whom tie their success to Roberts — and some arrived in the six stretch limousines, two Jaguars, Cadillacs and a Mercedes Benz parked curbside.
There were the middle of the road cars, too — with license plates from Missouri, Texas, Mississippi and Virginia — which took up most of the parking spaces. One couple flew from Dallas to attend the ceremony.
Illustrating Roberts' wide reach and appeal, mourners came from all backgrounds: From young people in tattered jeans and a man dressed in a camouflage hunting jacket to a young woman carrying a pricey Marc Jacobs handbag. Along with television evangelists, dignitaries included Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett and University of Kansas basketball coach Bill Self.
Self summed up his former boss: "Tough in nature, real and certainly one of the most charismatic men I have met," he said before the service began.
The service included video tributes and condolences from preachers and politicians; pictures with Roberts talking to Larry King, Jerry Lewis and President Richard Nixon; and a video message from former Oklahoma State University basketball coach Eddie Sutton, who recalled the time when his house burned down and Roberts showed up with an entire wardrobe to replace what had been lost.
ORU President Mark Rutland noted how adept Roberts was at using television to spread his message.
"There was something when Oral leaned into that TV and said, `Something good is going to happen to you today,'" he said.
Oral's son, Richard, the former president of the school, described his father's worldwide appeal in the days after his passing: He made the cover of more than 800 newspapers worldwide; he was the No. 1 searched name on Yahoo; more than 200 voice mails and 300 text messages flooded the ministry.
"My father is in heaven," Roberts said, his voice slightly cracking. "He's home for Christmas. He's home."
Richard Roberts resigned as president in 2007 amid allegations his family used school money to live a life of luxury. He has denied all wrongdoing and continues to preach on television.
The school has recovered from the scandal, which found ORU more than $50 million in debt, and enrollment ticked up slightly this year.
Oral Roberts' last appearance at the university came in September, when he returned to the campus he began building nearly 50 years ago to help inaugurate of the school's new president, Mark Rutland.
His doctors advised him not to make the trip, but Roberts went anyway. At the ceremony, Roberts needed a walker and two assistants to help him to his seat on stage.
He looked frail, and his breathing was labored during the brief remarks he gave.