The young man behind the icon

Students at St. Kevin’s High were offered an intimate and candid look inside the family life of a Canadian icon this month and thanked by his brother for keeping Terry Fox’s dream alive.

Fred Fox has picked up the torch of maintaining Terry’s memory and dream to raise money for cancer research from his late mom Betty, who dies three years ago.

It was clear from Fox’s talk to a hushed gymnasium full of students that all of the Fox family have been swept up in the mission that Terry started 35 years ago when he began his Marathon of Hope fundraising run across Canada from St. John’s harbour. Fox’s younger brother Darrell, who accompanied Terry during most of his run, still participates in Terry Fox events. Sister Judith looks after all of the international Terry Fox Runs, which are now held in over 30 countries. Cuba hosts the second largest number of Terry Fox Runs, with over two million people participating. Some 20,000 people participated in the Abu Dhabi Terry Fox Run.

“Our parents taught us it was important to finish what we start,” said Fox, who was a year older and a grade ahead in school when he and Terry grew up together in Manitoba and later British Columbia.

“We did everything together,” said Fox, who described his brother as “just an average kid,” but one with a special character trait when it came to determination.

“Our parents thought, and taught us, that it was important to work hard, to help out around the house, to do our chores,” said Fox.

The children also had to earn everything they got, he added. “They weren’t just going to go out and buy us our first set of golf clubs, or our first pair of blue jeans, or even our first 10 speed bike. We had to go and do that ourselves.”

The Fox brothers spent their summer holidays in July and August, from Monday to Friday, picking blueberries in the fields outside Port Coquitlam. “That taught Terry that work habit, that work ethic that he so needed when he was running across Canada and for everything else that he wanted to do,” said Fred.

Noting the pennants and banners hanging in the gymnasium, Fox said sports were a big part of Terry’s life. “Terry loved to played sports,” said Fox. “We did everything – baseball, hockey, soccer – whatever we could get our hands on, we played. We were always playing hard and competing. That’s what Terry loved to do.”

Fox recalled Terry in Grade 8 when he tried out for the school’s basketball team. “This is where he really began to meet the challenges he would face through high school,” said Fred. “Without exaggeration, Terry was one of the smallest Grade 8 boys in all of the school. But he wanted to play basketball. Terry practiced with the team for two weeks. The coach came to Terry and pulled him aside away from the rest of the team and said, ‘You know what, Terry? You’re probably going to sit on the bench and not play very much this year. You’re not very tall, your skill level is not quite where we need it to be, maybe the wrestling team or the cross country team may be more to your liking?’ But Terry took that as a challenge and every day after that you’d find Terry in the gymnasium practicing, before school, lunch time, after school, on the weekend, improving his skills. He never quit. He sat on the bench most of that season, played a few minutes here and there. But by the time he got to Grade 10, Terry was the starting guard and the captain of the team.”

Terry graduated from high school in 1976. His hope was to attend Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and play on the college basketball team. SFU was the first university in Canada to offer basketball scholarships to the best players they could recruit across the country. The coaching staff had not heard of Terry Fox.

But Terry kept telling his friends he was going to play for SFU, though some laughed at him. When university opened, 18 year-old Terry attended the tryouts as a ‘walk on’ athlete. His goal was to make the team, get a degree and teach high school physical education.

“The coaches would tell our parents later that ‘We couldn’t cut Terry. He made every one of those kids that we had scouted and recruited from all over Canada better athletes,’” said Fred. “He was a great teammate.’”

One of the college athletes Terry played with was future Olympian and Raptors coach Jay Triano.

Fox was not only playing college basketball, but also high level rugby and soccer. Into his second year of university he started to develop a sore knee. “He ignored it,” said Fox. “He hated to go to the doctors. Unfortunately it’s bit of a Fox trait. We don’t like to go see the doctor and Terry should have.”

The pain lasted for a couple of months. Then one morning in March when he woke up to get ready for class he could barely make to the kitchen.

Terry’s dad took him to the hospital where they ran tests. Fred was at work when his mother called. “She said, ‘Fred, you’ve got to join us at the hospital. We’ve just received some bad news.’”

Terry, 18, was told he had bone cancer and that his leg would be removed in four days’ time.

“He was devastated,” said Fred. “Terry thought heds never be able to play sports again, he thought he’d never be able to continue his university studies.”

The day before the operation, Fred spent the whole day at work worrying over what he would say to his brother when he visited the hospital that evening.

“All I could think of saying was, ‘Terry, why you? Why do you have to have cancer? All your dreams are coming true, you’re going to university, getting a degree, playing basketball at the highest level. Why you?’ And Terry said, ‘Why not me, Fred? It’s just another challenge. I’ve been told all my life that I’m not big enough and not strong and that I’m not smart enough. This is just another challenge that I have to overcome,’” Fred recalled. “And I knew then that Terry was going to be perfectly fine. He had decided in those four days since being told he had cancer that he wasn’t going to sit around feeling sorry for himself, he was going to turn it into something positive.”

Ten days after the operation, Terry was fitted with an artificial leg and surprised doctors by trying to walk so quickly. Over the next 18 months Terry witnessed children, adults and old people suffering from cancer and facing similar challenges. From that, he decided he wanted to make a difference.

“Terry began getting into shape,” said Fred. “He started to run, started to lift weights, play wheelchair basketball.”

That’s where he met and became close friends with Rick Hansen, who later became famous as the Man in Motion for his marathon performances in a wheelchair.

Terry’s family thought he was training for the Vancouver Marathon. But shortly after running a 17 mile race, as the only amputee, on Labour Day weekend 1980, in which he came last, the 21 year old told his family that he was going to run across Canada to raise money for cancer research, “so no one else would have to suffer the consequences of cancer.”

Fred said their Mom got very upset. She worried about how hard it would be on him. She suggested he limit his run to British Columbia.

“Terry said, ‘Mom, it’s not only people in B.C. who get cancer. People right across Canada do. I have to start in St. John’s, Newfoundland.’ And that’s what Terry did,” Fred said.

A measure of his determination was that Terry ran over 5,000 kms in training runs before even leaving for St. John’s. “Terry knew he had to prepare his body for all those miles he was going to run,” Fred said.

But as hard as he had trained, Fred said, Terry had not fully expected to meet the kind of weather that he did, or the hills that greeted him outside St. John’s. Terry chronicled it all in a personal journal that he added to every day. In it, he confessed things that he wouldn’t admit to his best friend Doug Alward, who accompanied him on the trip, such as feeling so dizzy during some of the runs that he was scared that he wouldn’t make it. On days like that, Terry would squat down on the pavement and do push-ups to prove to himself that he was capable of carrying on.

It was stressful, not just for Terry, but also for Alward, who drove slowly along behind Terry as he ran each mile.

“You can imagine,” said Fred. “They were out on the highway in this small little camperized van, they were 21 years old and before that time they had both been living at home and going to university. Our mom cooked their meals and washed their clothes and cleaned up after them. Well, now they’re living in this camperized van and it’s Doug’s job, not only to drive the van, but to cook the meals, keep the van clean, do whatever Terry wanted to meet his needs. Terry was running close to a marathon a day and you can imagine that after a while they weren’t getting along very well. They argued over whose turn it was to dump the port-a-potty and all that kind of stuff. They weren’t getting along to the point that sometimes they were actually having fistfights with each other.”

To relive the stress, Terry’s younger brother Darrell managed to graduate high school a few months early and join the Marathon of Hope in Saint John, New Brunswick. Now there were three young men sharing the van in the nighttime.

Terry’s goal was to raise $1 million for cancer research. At Port aux Basques, he was greeted by a crowd who had raised $10,000, about $1 for every person in the region. It inspired Terry to expand his goal to collecting the equivalent of $1 for every Canadian. That’s the goal of the Terry Fox Foundation again this year.

From Port aux Basques, Fox took the ferry across the Gulf of St. Lawrence and resumed his run in Cape Breton. He would get up at 4 every morning after sleeping in the cramped camper and get on the road by 5 a.m., running the equivalent of a 26 mile marathon every day on one leg and a prosthetic strapped to the stump of his other thigh.

“He set little goals for himself,” said Fred. “He didn’t get up with the intention of running a marathon every day. But he would go out on the highway and he would find a telephone pole or a tall tree or a curve in the highway and he would set little goals. He’d reach that tree that was in the distance and then find another object in the distance to set himself another goal. And by the end of the day he would have run, 20 or 26 or 30 miles.”

Terry continued his course through the Maritimes, across Quebec and into Ontario. He was running in Northern Ontario on September 1 when the cough that he had been developing over several weeks became too much. He had left St. John’s in April, when the wind and rain still had the lash of winter.  He had run through the cold, the wet and the fog of the Atlantic coast and then the heat, humidity and mosquitoes of spring and summer in Central Canada. He had run and stumped some 5,400 kilometres over 143 days with that now famous gait of his when a doctor odered him to stop. The cancer that had taken his leg had spread into his lungs.

Fred was travelling in a car with his parents and sister on the TransCanada Highway when their father switched on the radio and a news report said Terry was in hospital in Thunder Bay. “No other information,” said Fred. “Back then of course we didn’t have cel phones.”

When they got home, the phone was ringing and it was Terry on the line calling to let them know what had happened. But even then he wasn’t ready to quit. He was hoping to finish the run after taking more cancer treatment. “Terry truly felt that next spring, the spring of 1981, that he would get back out there in Thunder Bay and continue his Marathon of Hope,” Fred said. “But by Christmas we knew that Terry wasn’t getting any healthier.”

Terry realized it too, Fred said. When someone suggested organizing an annual fundraiser for cancer research called the Terry Fox Run, Terry liked the idea. But he didn’t live to see it. He died in late June 1981. The very first Terry Fox Runs were held that September.

“Terry had said, long before he was forced to stop the Marathon of Hope, that ‘Even if I don’t finish, we need others to continue, it’s got to keep going without me,” Fred said. “And that’s what you folks do here every year when you have your Terry Fox Run in September. I can’t tell you enough the fundraising that you do, the monies that you raise for cancer research have made a difference.”

By the time the runs are completed this fall, on the 35th anniversary of Terry’s original Marathon of Hope, some $700 million is likely to have been raised, Fred reckoned.

“That money has made a difference in so many people’s lives,” he added. “We are in contact with many people every other day about how that has impacted their lives or somebody they know.”

Posted on April 29, 2015 .