Canada 1981: Losing (and Finding) Terry Fox

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I share a somewhat shameful common thread with many Canadians of my generation, in that I didn’t recognize and appreciate one of the country’s all-time greatest heroes until it was too late to thank him for his incredible efforts.

And yet, it’s impossible to tell the remarkable story of Terry Fox without speaking of the impact he and his 1980 Marathon of Hope have had and continue to have on our country, nearly 36 years after he succumbed to the cancer that had already claimed his right leg.

However, to accurately tell the tale of the young man from British Columbia who set out to raise money and awareness for cancer research, we can’t forget that millions of Canadians – myself included – were barely aware of his cancer-fighting crusade when he dipped his artificial leg into the Atlantic Ocean waters off St. John’s, Newfoundland on April 12, 1980. (The picture below shows Terry with his friend Doug Alward, who cooked meals and drove the national tour’s modest van.)

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Seriously, I had no idea who he was or even that he was here. Three decades later, Terry Fox would finish second (behind former Saskatchewan Premier and federal NDP Leader Tommy Douglas) in a national CBC-TV survey to determine The Greatest Canadian. But when the Marathon of Hope arrived at the Port Hastings Rotary en route to the Canso Causeway later that spring, I was a blissfully unaware second-grader who had yet to experience the pain of losing a loved one to cancer.

Fortunately, others in our area had a better sense of Fox’s courage and purpose than I did, so Terry was greeted by Port Hawkesbury Mayor Billy Joe MacLean and several non-related Foxes, including Yvonne and Robert Fox of Port Hastings, when he and Doug arrived at the Rotary. (Side note: I am grateful to Yvonne, now a veteran member of the Port Hastings Historical Society, for sharing many of the pictures and news clippings you will see in this blog post.)

In the next two photos, you’ll see that Robert Fox’s cousin and the chief of the Port Hastings Volunteer Fire Department, George Fox (not to be confused with the award-winning Canadian country singer), joined Mayor MacLean for the official welcome. The news clipping, compiled by Doug McGee of the long-running Strait area newspaper The Scotia Sun, reported that Terry hoped to get home to B.C. “in time to do my Christmas shopping.”

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During that same stop, at a reception at Port Hastings’ Skye Motel, Yvonne Fox presented Terry with a copy of the Edgar Albert Guest poem It Couldn’t Be Done. According to a postcard the Port Hastings Foxes received a few weeks later from Doug Alward, who was guiding the Marathon of Hope through Prince Edward Island, Terry had posted the poem on the inside of the van and read portions of it to newspaper reporters calling for interviews. Small wonder, with lines like these:

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
      There are thousands to prophesy failure,
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
      The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
      Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
      That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.
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By the time Terry Fox arrived in Montreal on June 22, at the one-third mark of his 8,000-mile journey, he had already raised $200,000 for cancer research and was finally getting the attention his trek had deserved from the very beginning. With his brother Darrell now on the tour along with Doug Alward, Terry crossed into Ontario via the town of Hawkesbury and received, among other things, a fanfare from a local brass band, escorts from the Ontario Provincial Police, and – over the following weeks – encounters and support from such dignitaries as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Governor-General Ed Schreyer, as well as hockey legends Darryl Sittler and Bobby Orr. Terry even did a ceremonial kickoff at a Canadian Football League game, getting a standing ovation from the 16,000 fans in attendance.
Midway through the summer of 1980, the Marathon of Hope kept gaining momentum and confidence. Here’s how Doug Alward described it in this postcard to Robert and Yvonne Fox, sent on August 4, 1980:
 “Hi! We have now reached Sudbury (the 1/2-way point). All is well health wise and fund raising wise. Total is now $1 1/4 million. We collect $2,000-$3,000/day right on the road. Our best day was $12,000 going through Toronto. At the rate we are going, we should reach home in late Nov. Hope to see you there.”

 

Tragically, the Marathon of Hope would only last one more month after that cheery postcard found its way to Cape Breton.

Exhaustion had crept into Terry’s body by the end of August 1980; on the first day of September, just outside of Thunder Bay, chest pains and intense coughing persisted throughout the day, to the point that Terry finally asked Doug Alward to take him to the nearest hospital. One day later, armed with the confirmation that his cancer had returned and spread to his lungs, he tearfully suspended the Marathon of Hope with his parents at his side, turning down requests from others to run in his place and clinging to hope that someday, somehow, he would finish his cross-Canada crusade. (That heartbreaking footage is at the 2:55 mark of this tribute.)

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We officially lost Terry Fox on June 28, 1981, ten months after he ended his journey. But many of us were still just finding him and understanding the importance of the Marathon of Hope and his own personal journey. The first time I participated in the official Terry Fox Run, shortly before my tenth birthday in September 1982, I don’t think I could have even told you or not Terry was still alive; I was just amazed that I had managed to take my out-of-shape little body for a 10-kilometre walk.

It was all still a mystery to me by the time I had participated in my second Terry Fox Run, doing five kilometres – half the previous distance – in a pouring rainstorm. But then, a couple of weeks later, on my eleventh birthday, I saw the HBO-produced feature film The Terry Fox Story, developed as a made-for-TV presentation in the U.S. and given a limited theatrical run in Canada. I think I can safely say it’s the first time a movie has ever made me cry. (Amazingly, the entire film, which won five Genie Awards for excellence in Canadian cinema, is available here.)

Suddenly, I understood why we were walking around L’Ardoise in the rain earlier that month, and even wished we had gone the full 10 kilometres. Suddenly, I wanted to tell everybody in the world about this incredibly brave young man and what he had put himself through for the benefit of others. (I did that to a degree in our school’s Speech Festival the following spring, delivering a French translation of a tribute to Terry published in – wait for it – a Little Archie comic book.) Suddenly, the boy with only one working eye that had underwent cataract surgery only three years earlier and wasn’t allowed to play contact sports wasn’t feeling so sorry for himself, and had found a new role model.

 

Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one that wanted to remember Terry Fox. His parents Rolly (above right, next to the Thunder Bay statue that honours the final leg of the Marathon of Hope) and Betty dedicated the rest of their lives to promoting the Terry Fox Runs and assisting the Canadian Cancer Society in its fundraising and education efforts. They also proved remarkably considerate and candid when doing media interviews to promote these efforts; I had the honour of interviewing Betty Fox four times in the late ’90s, three of these for my CIGO-AM Radio job in Port Hawkesbury and the fourth for the weekly newspaper, The Reporter. (I remain touched by a letter Betty sent me in 1998 in which she suggests she was “saddened” to contact CIGO and find that I had left the station; given the thousands of times she spoken to reporters prior to her death in 2011, I’m astounded that she would be able to tell any of us apart.)

The first time I interviewed Betty, I learned that The Terry Fox Story – while drawing negative reaction from the Fox family for its portrayal of Terry’s parents – did indeed accurately capture Betty’s initial reluctance to see the Marathon of Hope begin. She recalled: “I told him, ‘Terry, why can’t you just run across B.C.?’ And he said, ‘Mom, it’s not just people in B.C. that get cancer.'”

By the way, The Terry Fox Story isn’t the only retelling of this incredible journey. In 2005, CTV broadcast the Shaftesbury Films production Terry, and this also wound up impacting my view of the whole story, but for markedly different reasons. The scene of Terry and his team coming to grips with his worsening cancer outside of Thunder Bay is especially moving because it’s plainly obvious that neither the centre of attention nor his brother or his best friend are mighty warriors, global conquerors or muscle-bound superheroes ready to save the galaxy. They’re young men in their early twenties, all trying to comprehend the absolute tragedy that is cancer. And that’s exactly who they were throughout the Marathon of Hope, making it all the more remarkable.

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The 2005 Terry movie ends with a montage of real and re-shot footage of the original cross-Canada trek, against the backdrop of Stan Rogers’ song “Turnaround.” I couldn’t find that particular piece but there’s a similar tribute video using the same song here. Even though it was written and recorded a few years before the Marathon of Hope, Rogers’ lyrics seem incredibly appropriate, especially given the obliviousness that many Canadians (including me) had towards the early stages of Terry’s run:

“Bits and pieces you offered of your life; I didn’t think they meant a lot or said much for you/And all the chances to follow didn’t make a lot of sense when stacked against the choices you made/For yours was the open road, the bitter song, the heavy load/That I couldn’t share/Though the offer was there, every time you turned around.”

Now, of course, it has to be said that Terry Fox was certainly not the last Canadian to criss-cross the country (or the world) for a noble cause. In 1985, Montreal native Steve Fonyo, who had also lost a leg to cancer, successfully completed his cross-Canada “Journey For Lives.” (As I don’t wish to diminish this achievement, I won’t get into Fonyo’s entire difficult life story; you can do that for yourself here, if you like.) Six years after missing Terry Fox’s arrival at the Port Hastings Rotary, I got to shake Rick Hansen’s hand as the wheelchair athlete brought his Man In Motion World Tour to the St. Peter’s Lions’ Hall; I’ll have more details about that in a future blog post.

These days, it seems like I’m interviewing someone for a national tour at least three or four times a year. Most of the time, it feels like a sincere effort; on a few rare occasions, it’s seemed a little frivolous or self-serving. But it’s hard to judge any of these efforts fairly when they’re placed within the lengthy shadow of that lanky young man from Port Coquitlam, B.C.

Apart from the fact that I’ve seen cancer claim too many people around me – including my paternal grandparents, an uncle and an aunt, a dear friend, and two people under the age of 30 that worked with me on the Port Hawkesbury wing of the Canadian Cancer Society’s Relay For Life over the past decade – my admiration for Terry Fox and his legacy stems in part from the time period in which he launched his noble crusade.

Surprisingly, the late actor-comedian Don Harron may have put it best, while donning the persona of his country-bumpkin political commentator Charlie Farquharson. In the 1982 book Yer Last Decadent, a review of the previous 10 years, Farquharson devotes the last section of his 1980 chapter to Terry Fox, refusing to give the young man a comic name-change and instead suggesting that the Marathon of Hope was a much-needed infusion of civility and courage at a time when Canadians seemed bogged down in national-unity nattering (including the first Quebec sovereignty referendum and subsequent constitutional bickering, as I discussed on my blog earlier this week):

“Terry Fox is the kind of peeple you reed about in histry books, fame-us for all time. He was bilt as the same kinda stuff as them explorers that uncovert this country in the first place. But he made this country discover itself at a time wen we was all wrangling like ally cats. Nobuddy in this country has even been a bigger credit to his race, and I mean the yuman race, than this yung feller hoo put this country back on its feet with only a laig to stand on hisself.”

You said it, Charlie.

Thank you, Terry, for helping Canada find itself before and after we lost you.

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(Footnote: In 2010, years after helping to welcome Terry Fox to the Port Hastings Rotary, Robert and Yvonne Fox visited this tribute to Terry in the British Columbia capital of Victoria. Many thanks, once again, to both of them for sharing the resources and stories to help bring this blog post to life.)

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