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Signs of trouble at Liberty University

Alumni and critics wonder why the school’s trustees didn’t act sooner against Jerry Falwell Jr.

Signs of trouble at Liberty University

(Illustration by Krieg Berrie/Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Lynchburg, Va., bussinessman Jimmy Thomas Sr. and his family have invested much in Liberty University in the last 30 years. In 1992, Thomas and fellow businessman Daniel Reber donated $1.4 million for construction of Liberty’s dining hall, known as Reber-Thomas. When Liberty was drowning in debt and struggled to make payroll in 1995, Thomas and Reber bought $30 million of Liberty’s debt and forgave it. Thomas accepted an honorary doctorate from Liberty in 2019. Son Glen, after attending Liberty, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of land to Liberty in 2008.

In November 2013, Liberty alumni Glen and Jimmy Thomas Jr. joined their father, Jimmy Thomas Sr., on Liberty’s board of trustees. But their tenure didn’t last long—two years later they had all resigned. Critical of the board’s ability to hold the president accountable in managing Liberty, the three proposed changes. But the board didn’t enact them. “The reason we resigned from the board was because we felt like we were in a role where we had accountability but we had no authority,” Glen Thomas told me. “I felt like, if I’m going to be on the board, I have a fiduciary responsibility to be on that board and be an overseer of the university.”

Following Jerry Falwell Jr.’s resignation as the school’s president after 13 years, Liberty alumni and others are asking if those who remained on Liberty’s board did their job in holding its president accountable. Falwell resigned on Aug. 25 amid personal scandal: his wife’s affair with a pool attendant and his posting of a racy photo on Instagram. But critics and media reports in recent years have questioned both Falwell’s public behavior and his business dealings (see sidebar, below). On Aug. 31, the board of trustees’ powerful executive committee announced it’s hiring a forensics firm to investigate “all facets” of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s tenure as the school’s president.

The committee’s statement about the investigation acknowledged skepticism about the board’s governance: “Some may say that all the signs were there for a long time before last week, but all the signs were not there until the start of last week.” Critics disagree.

Despite the scandals, Falwell says he’s walking away with a $10.5 million severance package, though it’s not clear what of that may be severance pay and what could be deferred retirement income. “The board was gracious not to challenge that,” he told The Washington Post. “There wasn’t any cause. I haven’t done anything wrong.”

Falwell's claim raises questions about the terms of his employment contract. Liberty is a private school, so it doesn’t have to disclose the contract’s terms. Nondisclosure agreements keep trustees and other officials from sharing details with the public, and few people have even seen Falwell’s employment contracts. 

Liberty’s bylaws hand the responsibility of negotiating a president’s contract and evaluating his job performance to the board of trustees’ executive committee (currently composed of five people), independent of the full, 32-member board. At least 16 of those trustees were on the school’s board when Jerry Falwell Sr. died in 2007, including longtime board chair Jerry Prevo, who became acting president when Falwell Jr. resigned.

The bylaws don’t require the executive committee to disclose the terms of the president’s contract to the full board, nor does the full board vote on the employment contract. People familiar with how Liberty’s board works say the full board never would have seen the full terms of Falwell’s employment contracts, the latest of which Falwell signed in 2019.

Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council for Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), warned against all-powerful executive committees: “That is not healthy. It’s common enough, but it’s not healthy.” ACTA is a nonprofit that advocates for trustees providing more accountability for colleges and universities. An entire board rubber-stamping an executive committee’s decisions means the board “is not performing its duty as a fiduciary, governing board,” Poliakoff said. He recommends boards be nine to 15 members: “That tends to get everybody focused.” But it’s common for private colleges to have larger boards with less activity.

Liberty’s tax filings do state Falwell’s compensation, which in 2017 (the last year available) topped $1 million. It had been just shy of $1 million for several years prior to 2017. According to data ACTA compiles at, for every dollar it spent on instruction in 2018, Liberty spent 64 cents on administration. Poliakoff said the average among peers is 27 cents. In years past, Liberty officials have said they wanted to make the school into a University of Notre Dame for evangelicals. Notre Dame spent 43 cents on administration per dollar on instruction in 2018. For comparison, Baylor University spent 26 cents on administration, and The King’s College in New York City spent 39 cents in the same year.

Falwell’s claims also raise the question of whether his contract included a morals clause barring immoral behavior. Because of board protocols and nondisclosure agreements, only a few people actually know. Liberty’s board has given no indication it’s going to enforce morals clauses. 

Price Harding is chairman of executive search firm CarterBaldwin, which has performed work for Liberty in the past. He says most Christian schools don’t include morals clauses in presidents’ contracts because doctrinal and community life standards usually keep administrators in check and give trustees enough authority to hold them accountable.

Some of Falwell’s more alarming behavior—his possible sanctioning of his wife’s affair, his posting of an Instagram photo of him and another woman with pants unzipped and stomachs exposed, his calling a Liberty parent a “dummy” and a Liberty student “retarded”—could constitute morals clause violations. 

Even if Falwell's contract didn’t have a morals clause, the school’s bylaws lay out the president’s responsibilities: “He provides spiritual and worldview leadership to the university in the pursuit of excellence.” Another section outlining the removal of board members allows trustees to hold one another accountable, saying trustees can be removed “should the board member’s conduct discredit the institution or be detrimental to the reputation, character, standing, or Christian mission of the institution.” As president, Falwell was a member of the board of trustees.

Several of Falwell’s public statements in recent years call into question whether he lived up to those mandates. He told Pastor David Platt on Twitter to “grow a pair” in 2019. He removed the tweet but in response said he’s not a spiritual leader: “I have never been a minister. UVA-trained lawyer and commercial real estate developer for 20 yrs,” he tweeted. “The faculty, students, and campus pastor … are the ones keeping LU strong spiritually.”

That same year, a reporter for sports website The Ringer asked Falwell how much his faith informed his politics. “Not at all,” Falwell toldhim.

In May 2020, Falwell protested Virginia’s COVID-19 face mask mandate. He tweeted a medical school yearbook photo of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in blackface standing next to a man in a Ku Klux Klan robe. The photo—which previously had become a scandal of its own for Northam—was superimposed onto a face mask. Backlash ensued. Black students transferred, and black faculty and staff resigned.

Maina Mwaura, a 1997 Liberty alumnus, pastor, speaker, and writer, organized a letter from Liberty’s black alumni, which asked Falwell to retract the tweet and take a job in politics, not leading Liberty. Mwaura got 35 people to sign the letter, and almost 40,000 people signed an online petition supporting it.

Mwaura wasn’t surprised by the groundswell of support he and his letter received—or the roller coaster of events leading to Falwell’s resignation. But the board’s inaction before the sex scandals did: “The lack of accountability really bothered me. At the end of the day, the board of directors completely failed us as an institution. … It wasn’t just one thing.”

Mwaura says he approached three board members directly about Falwell’s behavior. “Literally on almost every occasion I got nothing back,” he said.

The executive committee in its Aug. 31 statement alluded to a lack of spiritual leadership from Falwell: “We are also committed to learning the consequences that have flowed from a lack of spiritual stewardship by our former president.” The committee announced, while beginning a search for a new president, it may establish a new position “in the top leadership of the university” to be a spiritual coach to Liberty administrators.

Calum Best, who co-founded Liberty alumni advocacy group Save 71 earlier this year, told me the day that Falwell resigned the group doesn’t have much faith in the board of directors: “Falwell left today because he was humiliated, not because the board chose to respond to years of failed leadership. They had the opportunity to. Instead, they shirked their responsibility once again.”

Liberty’s Board of Trustees didn’t respond to my questions about Falwell’s contract or requests for interviews. Senior Vice President of Communications Scott Lamb said the school isn’t yet announcing the forensics firm conducting the independent investigation, but the firm may decide to announce its involvement later. “Transparency is the goal,” Lamb said.

Falwell critics and media outlets pointed out several business deals that benefited Falwell family or friends during his tenure. One transaction also involved the chair of the board of trustees’ executive committee: Harvey Gainey. In 2017, Liberty made a $30,000 contribution to Gainey’s private foundation that, according to tax filings, provides scholarships for Christian student-athletes. 

The Gainey Foundation’s tax filing discloses that it made a $52,000 contribution to Liberty University the same year.

Liberty’s bylaws state, “The chairman of the executive committee and a majority of the other voting members of the executive committee shall have no contractual, employment, personal, familial, or financial interest in the institution.”

Liberty’s board didn’t provide responses to my questions about the transaction.

Poliakoff, the president of ACTA, said recent years’ reports of self-dealing under Falwell raise questions about trustees’ oversight: “All the rumors that come out from Liberty suggest that kind of transparent, careful analysis of what’s in the best interest of the school has not been done before.” He said the board should have demanded more transparency: “Liberty made a desperate mistake in vesting pretty much everything in its one leader.”                                          

with reporting from J.C. Derrick


AP Photo/Steve Helber, File

Jerry Falwell Jr. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

Falwell’s business deals

Jerry Falwell Jr. says he is walking away from the Liberty presidency with $10.5 million. He also made a lot of money from his Liberty connection years ago while Liberty University’s general counsel. In 2019 I began investigating records that show Falwell, his family members, and close friends personally profiting from other deals with a nonprofit affiliated with Jerry Falwell Sr. 

There’s nothing wrong with real estate developers profiting from legal transactions. What’s at question here and in other media reports is whether Falwell’s position gave him an inside track to getting more profitable business deals or helping associates and family obtain deals, especially in light of Liberty’s independent investigation into the school’s “financial, real estate, and legal matters” under Falwell’s leadership.

Today, four restaurants—Cracker Barrel, Crab Du Jour (formerly a Ruby Tuesday), Buffalo Wild Wings, and Texas Roadhouse—and an overflow parking lot sit at an intersection on commercial corridor Wards Road, near Liberty’s campus. In the 1990s, those parcels sat empty.

In 1996, Liberty Broadcasting—the now-defunct broadcast ministry Falwell Sr. acquired in 1986—sold the property where those restaurants sit (and hundreds of other acres) to a Virginia company called Bi-State Properties. One of that company’s partners was Falwell family friend Fred Gene Davis (Falwell Jr. was a pallbearer at Davis’ 2006 funeral, and Falwell Sr.’s wife, Macel, wrote about a close friendship with Davis and his wife). In November 1997, Bi-State Properties conveyed the Wards Road property to two parties: Davis and Rocky Bottom Realty LLC. Falwell Jr. was a member of the LLC.

According to an official in the Lynchburg City Assessor’s office, Rocky Bottom and Davis paid $205,150 for the Wards Road parcel, though tax assessments valued it at twice that amount. In 1998, Davis deeded his interest in the property to MB Development LLC, whose manager was a cousin of Jerry Falwell Jr. Between 1999 and 2005, Rocky Bottom and MB Development sold five parcels to the restaurants named above, generating $2.6 million.

Liberty’s written response to my questions about the transactions in 2019 insists the relationship had nothing to do with the sales and that Liberty Broadcasting used the proceeds from Bi-State to pay down debt.

Another example: One of the many restaurants in the Wards Road corridor today is Muscle Maker Grill, at 3920 Wards Road. According to Lynchburg property records, Liberty Broadcasting Network took control of the property in the 1990s. In 2001—while Falwell Jr. served as Liberty University’s general counsel—Liberty Broadcasting sold the parcel to Gateway Country Plaza LLC for $327,000. Five years later, Gateway Country Plaza sold the same parcel to a developer for $2.675 million. Virginia records showed Falwell Jr. was one of the members of Gateway Country Plaza and performed the legal work on the transaction.

When I questioned the sale, Liberty spokesman Scott Lamb said Liberty Broadcasting had offered the property on the open market before selling to Gateway, and the company paid more than the assessed value of the property at the time, which was $275,000. Falwell Jr. also maintained he did not negotiate the sale between Gateway and Liberty Broadcasting. 

Liberty’s written statements to me pointed out that Liberty Broadcasting was a separate entity with its own board. But the lines weren’t always so clear. In another transaction involving Liberty Broadcasting property, Falwell Jr. appeared before the Lynchburg Board of Zoning Appeals in February 2004 and told board members he was representing one of his LLCs and Liberty Broadcasting.

Once Falwell Jr. became president of Liberty -University, the school awarded his son Trey two contracts to manage property in a shopping center Liberty owns.

After spending a half million dollars in updates, Liberty partnered with a real estate broker to recruit more businesses to the nearby Plaza shopping center. In 2009 Trey Falwell formed a limited liability company that managed relationships with Plaza tenants. In its tax filings for years 2009-11, Liberty valued transactions with Trey Falwell’s company between $30,000 and $50,000 each year. 

But beginning in 2012, after Trey Falwell formed a new company to handle the project, those disclosures disappeared from Liberty’s tax filings. IRS regulations require nonprofits list on their 990 tax forms business transactions with “interested parties”—such as family members of officers or board members—when those transactions exceed $100,000. The disclosure appeared again in Liberty’s 2016 tax filing. But by that time, Trey Falwell had been a regular employee of Liberty for about three years. He is now Liberty’s vice president of university support services. In written statements to me, Liberty said the original crop of disclosures was “overly inclusive” and Liberty’s auditors decided in 2012 not to include them anymore since they didn’t meet the $100,000 threshold.

Liberty has had other transactions involving Trey Falwell. In 2015, he bought a Liberty-owned house in Rustburg, Va., from the school for $222,500. Liberty on its tax return did not originally mark the sale as being with an interested party. 

Last year Liberty amended its tax filing for the year of the sale that included additional disclosures of business transactions with Trey Falwell: $340,869 for “rent/sale transaction” and “employment compensation.” Liberty’s statements to me say that cumulative total includes Trey Falwell’s employee compensation, plus the rent and purchase price he paid for the home. The school filed the amended tax return “in an abundance of caution” after Trey Falwell requested it following other media reports.—M.R.

Editor’s Note: WORLD has updated this story since its original posting.

Michael Reneau

Michael Reneau

Michael Reneau is editor of WORLD Magazine. He is a World Journalism Institute and Bryan College graduate. He was editor of The Greeneville Sun newspaper before joining WORLD. Michael resides with his wife and four children in Greeneville, Tenn. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelReneau.


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  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Sat, 09/05/2020 03:38 am

    "The executive committee of Liberty University’s board of trustees announced Monday that it’s hiring a forensics firm to investigate “all facets” of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s tenure as the school’s president."

    I sounds like the board is seeking to get some of the $10.5 million back by identifying any wrongdoing and then suing Fallwell Jr. Why else would they hire a "forensics" firm? I point out the "wrongdoing" can be subjective based on different interpretations of the law or contract.  

    These type of contracts of high payout are not unheard of in education, depending on the university. 

    "Critics had pointed to Falwell’s erratic behavior, public statements, and questionable business for years. But it took salacious personal scandals to force Liberty University’s board finally to take action in August." 

    You don't just fire someone for no reason. Jerry Falwell Jr was not PC and he offended some people because of it. I hold being non-PC a virtue most the time but he did not act with wisdom required of a President of a Christian university, in a number of cases. 

    There was nothing wrong with endorsing Trump as president.  He was clearly the best person for the job looking at the viable choices, from a Christian perspective. Trump isn't a perfect man but there is no requirement that a leader be perfect. None of us are. As we pray for our leaders so we should vote for our leaders, electing rulers who will protect and prosper the Christian Church (1 Tim: 2:1-4). 

    Having business relationships and working to benefit yourself is not wrong in and of itself but one has to be careful that they don't use their position related to the university in an illegal way. There are black and white cases but also much gray area. So the fact that the board did not terminate Jerry Falwell earlier may not be morally wrong depending on the business deals. 

    The board gave Falwell great latitude in his dealings but he clearly stepped over the bounds with the pictures where he admitted he was joking around which is not becoming of a president of a Christian university. The other revelations - if true for he denies them - are bizarre and clearly sinful. I am reminded of the passage about the sins that follow the ungodly.  

    I do think it is sometimes needed to expose this type of wrongdoing but I think that World has to be careful what they say and do.  For example, the business dealings require lawyers, businesspeople accountants and other experts to really assess the wrongdoing. World by reporting on this, may slander the person under review by reporting on wrongdoing when they are innocent.  Is World ever held accountable for this? I don't think so. You could be training up reporters who go around destroying Christians in the name of reporting and journalism. I know World has some internal checks before they report on these type of stories, but still much care must be taken.

    If this "corruption reporting" was based on false witnesses - a political hit job - it would be hard to discern. 

  •  dcsfoyle's picture
    Posted: Thu, 09/03/2020 09:43 am

    You seem overly eager to protect things simply because they are considered right-wing. There are plenty of facts about Falwell that are a matter of public record at this time which should shame anyone who calls himself a Christian. This isn't the first time you have called WORLD on the carpet because they have published information about a right-wing scandal, and I submit that you are not considering these issues with objectivity.

    WORLD has a track record of being honest and truthful when right-wing and Christian scandals are reported. This is vital reporting, I have not encountered another entity with the integrity that WORLD has built over the last 35 years. When you consider that Christians must hold ourselves to a higher standard ("but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy.'" 1 Peter 1:15-16) what matters more than exposing our opponents as being sinful is being honest and frank when we (or at least those among us claiming the name of Christian) are sinful.

    This honesty is more than trying to look good to outsiders or "being woke," it serves to show that Christians care about the Gospel that we preach. It shows that we are different that the pragmatic progressive who believes that the ends justify the means. The ends don't justify the means.

    Posted: Thu, 09/03/2020 10:38 am

    World is very careful in their reporting on these institutions and Christian celebrites, something I deeply appreciate. They're not quick to attack, but they are thorough. Take away all of the stuff Falwell, Jr., denies, and there's still plenty that would get a student kicked out. There is no way he should be at the head of any Christian institution right now, whether he's a "spiritual leader" or not.

    I am absolutely befuddled ... I grew up in the Clinton years when conservatives and Christians seemed to think character was more important in leadership than anything else. Fast forward to now, and I keep hearing excuses why popular leaders should get a pass on their "indiscretions." 

    Character matters at every level. I probably wouldn't buy a used car from Jerry Falwell, Jr.; I wouldn't want my (imaginary) daughter to date him or his kids; and I certainly wouldn't want him in any position where he's influencing my children. 

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Fri, 09/04/2020 07:29 pm


    You sound like a liberal pushing propaganda! I recommended the firing of Falwell Jr because of his conduct but warn that World has to be careful in their reporting on this matter. There are leftists that lie, distort the truth and will pay anyone who will bring forward trash on a prominent conservative/Christian. There are people like you who are eager to read about it and assign the worst motives, especially if it is a “right-wing” individual! I highlight the word “right-wing” because it is a pejorative word! 

    “There are plenty of facts about Falwell that are a matter of public record at this time which should shame anyone who calls himself a Christian.”

    You call them “facts” but are they? What exactly did Falwell do wrong? Let us look at his business dealings. An amateur such as World doesn’t know business law, contract law, tax law and real estate law to assess the guilt or innocence of anyone. It is dangerous for them to pretend they are experts in these areas and issue their judgment with the stamp of being the “Christian” response. If we look back in the Old Testament we see God established the “cities of refuge” so a fair trail would be had based on solid evidence and not hearsay, rumor and what was “written” in the news of their day. 

    Jerry Falwell denies some of the sexual allegations against him and his wife. We have to be careful in automatically believing everything just because it is out in the news. What he did acknowledge was the inappropriate picture with his wife’s secretary with their zippers down which was supposedly a joke. I don’t see how this sets an example of marital fidelity and purity for the students of LU, so I say this would justify removal. A pastor or president of a Christian university should be judged by higher standards. 

    I pointed out that the board may have acted with integrity and you cannot automatically assume they didn’t. With the recent revelations, the board is in the unenviable position where they are having to remove their presidential of the university. Jerry Falwell’s non-PC responses didn’t justify removal. I remember well the racist video that the present governor of VA used to get elected. They showed some white guy in a truck attempting to run down some blacks. It made my blood boil too and I agree with the sentiment of Falwell’s post showing the hypocrisy of the governor when he dressed up in black face in high school. Being a president of a Christian University, however, Falwell should have been wiser and realize that his critics would use this against him and it could offend some black students of the university. The board probably chided Falwell for his poor decision but I don’t think this should be a fireable offense. Of course the PC crowd would claim it is and would attempt to get rid of him - but they are hardly godly in their opinions and actions. 

    World has reported on corruption in Evangelical circles sometimes with integrity but not all cases. The attack on Judge Roy Moore was a case in point. The alleged events happened over 40 years ago now and the partisan attack was setup by an outside group with big pockets.  Once the political hit job worked, they folded up shop and left without following up on the lawsuits supposedly to bring the women justice. 

    I believe World has good intentions but are sometimes naive about the political attacks put forward by political operatives. We should not forget the Kavanaugh hearings and the joke that was - a cruel joke that hurt the man and his family. 

    Never have I said the ends justify the means. I do think that when we have two candidates before us, one who will better protect and prosper the church, then we had better vote for him/her. This is biblical as I showed before.

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Thu, 09/03/2020 05:33 am

    Below is some context to Falwell's "Not at all" statement. I think it is illustrative to the challenge of accurate and informed investigative journalism. I would hate to have my every cavalier statement investigated and parsed. Does everything that comes out of our mouths exactly conform to some expected standard? (Yes I've read and agree with Proverbs)

    Jerry had a brash side. As Cyborg3 pointed out there can be a positive to not falling lock step into a PC shadow. But there is a balance needed and Jerry was not good at this. I think when someone becomes insulated from everyday life, rubs shoulders with the rich and famous (not to mention Presidents) something happens. Jerry seemed under their spell. I heard him speak glowingly about being in Mel Gibson's house with his children and they were able to hold the famous claymore sword from Brave Heart. What a great experience and opportunity. But by the same token one must wonder how this impacted Jerry and Becki. And by extension his LU presidency. LU will move on. It is an incredible school and had impacted thousands of young minds, and souls, for good.

    [The Ringer quote] Falwell is one of the bulwarks of the religious right, an heir to his father’s Moral Majority. His family has built its legacy on the intertwinement of faith and politics, fighting for prayer in schools and against gay marriage. Yet Falwell seems to be suggesting that his political activity is no longer guided by his Christian beliefs. So I ask how much his faith informs his political views.

    “Not at all,” he says.

    Without pausing, he rushes into an explanation. “I mean, I believe what I do politically because I believe it’s what’s best for the country. And I take to heart what Jesus said. Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. They’re two different things.” In years past, many within the religious right have seemed to equate Christian belief with conservative politics—particularly on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Falwell, though, justifies his support for Trump by suggesting that faith and politics need not be intertwined. “I think you can be a liberal, a conservative, or a libertarian, and still be a good Christian.” [End of "The Ringer" quote - note carefully what is in quotes as Falwell's words and what is not as The Ringer's verbiage]


  • RC
    Posted: Thu, 09/03/2020 09:55 am

    I hold Jerry Falwell Senior and the Board responsible. It was Senior who put his unqualified son into to a position he was not trained or equipped to handle, which Jerry Jr has admitted!  Then later, the Board failed to get rid of Jerry Jr. like they should have. The fact that Mr. Reber and Mr. Thomas resigned from the Board due to the Boards failure to rein in Jerry Jr. clearly show the Board’s guilt. Before the Board selects new President, they need an audit their performance over the last few years and clean house there first.

    Posted: Thu, 09/03/2020 10:31 am

    This is the most complete and detailed reporting I have found on the subject.  I trust WORLD to be honest and accurate.  I am grateful to see this receiving coverage and hope the investigating will continue until truth and light have uncovered all.

  • Allen Johnson
    Posted: Fri, 09/04/2020 04:46 pm

    However the Forensic Firm concludes its findings, what overshadows all this is God's judgment. How will God, who knows everything, judge the Board of Trustees?

    And how will God, who knows everything, judge the Falwell's? From a clear biblical perspective, God's judgment will likely depend upon repentance. Question: Can the Falwell's county on God's forgiveness and mercy, along with forgiveness and mercy, and still walk away clear with $10.5 million. As Jesus made clear, "What profits a person to gain the whole world and lose his soul?

    Posted: Mon, 09/07/2020 07:45 pm

    The basic reasons Christians fail:   1. Silver  2. Self  3. Sloth  4. Sex

                                                   Or:   1. Girls    2. Gold   3. Glory