CADILLAC — George Corliss, a popular religious broadcaster, became ill in April and on Sunday he passed away from pneumonia at Munson Healthcare Cadillac Hospital. He was 61.

Since the news of his death, social media condolences have poured in from people whose lives were impacted by the big man with the even bigger heart.

"George ... is an example of God's power to change lives, a fatherly figure to many with a happy-to-see-you face and a strong handshake," said Zechariah Abraham Salisbury.

"When I heard we needed to pray for George Corliss, I stopped working and prayed, assuming he would pull through like he has so many times ... We met George when I was 5 years old and little did we know how much our time with him would change our lives for eternity ... we are eternally grateful for the influence he was and the many souls he has won to the Lord," said Laura McKinley.

Many people came to know God's love through Corliss. If He could change "Big George" then God must be real. Because 30 years ago, Corliss was a "bully with a big mouth."

Back then, at 6 feet, 3 inches tall and 400 pounds, he worked as a nightclub/bowling alley manager. And after work, he was a self-described "carousing, philandering alcoholic."

During the personal turmoil of the early 1980s, he and his wife Debby were divorcing. To cope, she joined a Bible study and called him to say, "I love you and I forgive you." He hung up on her. When she asked him to attend her baptism, he said, "I hate you. Why would I come to that?"

One morning, a pastor dropped by the bowling alley. Corliss was seething, knowing his wife sent him. But he left behind a book, "Three Hours to Live," and Corliss eventually started reading it.

His conversion didn't happen overnight. But slowly he began to change.

"I didn't really know what love was," he said. "But I didn't like the love I'd seen in the bowling alley. I was sick of that. I would come home and I would see love. That love, the love of God, was pouring out of my wife. I began to learn how much God loved me."

Corliss surrendered his life to God's will, never envisioning the path his life would take.

The legacy of George Corliss

Because of Corliss, hundreds of people learned how to manage their weight and health through a healthy lifestyle after Corliss dropped 100 pounds and packaged an eight-week program called START NEW with the help of a physician. The program followed the biblical principles of his Adventist faith.

Because of Corliss, thousands of Northern Michigan school children received character building and anti-drug messages through LISTEN America, an educational nonprofit he founded that helped students make positive choices through school assemblies and events featuring Super Bowl winners. He also published a magazine, "Kids Club News" and over 18 years raised about $4 million to fund the nonprofit.

He has also raised close to $5 million in the last nine years to fund Strong Tower Radio, a Christian station that began broadcasting from Cadillac in 2009.

They now own 11 radio stations and one television station, and last fall, the organization moved into their new location, the former Fox 32 broadcast facility on South 45 Road in Cadillac.

The staff of four, plus three volunteers, counted on God and Corliss to help them raise $466,000 to make the purchase.

Most of the programming comes from Three Angels Broadcasting Network, the second-largest Christan network in North America. Locally, Corliss hosted three popular shows, including "Strong Tower Today with Jilane Fenner."

Failing health

When Corliss's wife Debby passed away unexpectedly in 2016, Corliss was suffering from his own failing health and was on dialysis. In 2017, he married Joy Maul, a widow from Grand Rapids whom he met during START NEW programs.

"I can't even imagine how many people will be in the Kingdom because of George," Joy said. "If you know anybody who doesn't believe in God, they should know George. He is a miracle."

Joy and co-workers can recount countless health scares Corliss survived and how he could miraculously raise huge amounts of money just when it was needed.

"People called George a visionary," she added.

"He had all the ideas for fundraising for Strong Tower Radio," said Fenner. "Not everybody can be a fundraiser. He had no problem asking people for money. And he could talk to anybody about the Lord. His mission was to proclaim God's character."

"And to win souls to Christ," added Joy. "That's what he was about."

A public memorial service will be held for George Corliss at 4 p.m. on Saturday at Resurrection Life Church in Cadillac, officiated by Adventist Pastor Bob Benson and Pastor Pat Milligan.