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Jerry Pattengale's cell phone won't stop ringing as he leads a secretive group of four wide-eyed college administrators around a majestic campus built in 1879 by legendary evangelist D.L. Moody.

Calls and visitors are pouring in for one reason: the billionaire Oklahoma family that owns the 217-acre site in Northfield, Massachusetts, and its 43 buildings aims to give it away to a Christian institution. Free. No charge. Just take it.

"That was a national organization in Colorado that just called," said Pattengale, a college administrator who's been hired to help find a new owner for the property. "They want to come and see."

The extraordinary offer went out to 15 hand-picked institutions in January after plans fell apart to locate a new C.S. Lewis College on the site that once housed the Northfield campus of Northfield Mount Hermon School. Moody founded a predecessor school, the Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies, here in 1879.

Now the Green family, owners of the Hobby Lobby craft store chain, is soliciting new proposals. The winner will need to demonstrate both an orthodox Christian vision and the financial wherewithal to pull it off.

Whoever gets the property will inherit a gem with hilltop views stretching to New Hampshire and Vermont. Since buying the campus in 2009 for $100,000, the Greens have poured $5 million into improvements. Visitors now stroll along new sidewalks, smell fresh paint in the 2,400-seat auditorium where Moody preached and marvel at seamlessly rebuilt buttressing for a formerly condemned stone chapel.

For the Greens, giant gifts to promote Christian education and the Bible are a stock in trade. The family saved Oral Roberts University with a $70 million donation; gave a campus in Haverhill, Mass., to Zion ...

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February 2012

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