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In spring 1980, Terry Fox began his Marathon of Hope in St. John’s, N.L.
Joining the 22-year-old amputee as he headed to Ontario was a young PR man from the Canadian Cancer Society’s Ontario division named Bill Vigars.
Through the gruelling endeavour, Vigars became one of Fox’s closest confidants as he worked to make sure everyone in Canada soon knew the brave young man’s name and his quest to raise awareness and funds for cancer research. Now, 43 years later, White Rock’s Vigars, with Ian Harvey, has written the book Terry & Me: The Inside Story of Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope.
Postmedia News caught up with Vigars and asked him a few questions about that life-changing time:
Q: What was the first thing you did to get Terry and his quest on the country’s radar?
A: We met in Edmunston, New Brunswick, then huddled in an Econoline Van and mapped out 26 miles a day up to Toronto. If he wanted to go national, he would have to make a splash, first in Ottawa, then, most importantly, Toronto. By chance, I heard a Toronto radio announcer talking about Terry and he was clearly impressed by The Toronto Star coverage. I went immediately to the station and pitched them to get on-board. I had nothing to show except two Polaroid pictures of Terry and my enthusiasm, but they were all in: “We’ll take care of Toronto, you take of the rest.”
So, I spent the next three weeks visiting small communities between Toronto and Ottawa, telling them Terry was coming. The run went from near obscurity to national news when he kicked off the football at the Ottawa-Saskatchewan CFL game, with a five-minute standing ovation from the crowd on Canada Day. The wave grew as we neared Toronto, with all those small towns enthusiastically welcoming him. When he was greeted by 10,000 people at Toronto City Hall on July 11, I knew his cause had gone viral — though we didn’t call it that in those days!
Q: Now, all these decades later when you think of Terry, what is the first thing that pops into your mind?
A: His humility, selflessness, tenacity, and his smile.
Q: Aside from Terry’s actual physical output, what were a couple of other really challenging aspects of the run?
A: Initially, it was convincing all of the eight Ontario Cancer Society districts to support the Marathon of Hope. They almost took a pass. Two divisions resisted, saying they did not have the volunteer support. It came down to a last-minute vote. After that, shielding him from the bureaucracy, who at first weren’t on-board, then when he became big news, wanted to own him.
Q: What would you have done differently?
A: While writing, I realized my greatest regret was rushing to fly his brother Darrell and friend Doug home so quickly. Everything was a blur, making decisions in a state of emotional angst. It’s only my opinion, but I think they should have stayed in Thunder Bay and had the opportunity to empty the van they had lived in for several months and come to terms what went down so suddenly. I don’t know if they feel the same, but 43 years later, that is my biggest regret.
Q: What were some of the interesting, specific things that were in the van that supported Terry along the run?
A: Early in the run, someone gave a copy of the poem by Edgar Albert Guest entitled It Couldn’t Be Done. It hung on the wall in the van where he could read it every day. He also had a Bible, although I never saw him reading it. Also, he had a large Reader’s Digest book about Canada with maps and tourist information he’d read before sleeping so he’d know what lay ahead.
Q: In the book, you talk about how Terry also had a great interest in seeing the country. What part did he enjoy the most and why?
A: He really enjoyed the south shore of the St. Lawrence River; he thought it was the most beautiful scenery he’d ever seen. Although it was the greatest challenge of the run. Also the majestic beauty of Lake Superior and the immense size of Ontario. At one point he said: “When is it ever going to end?”
Q: Four-plus decades later, how was it to revisit that monumental time?
A: The hardest part was getting started. I’ve told stories about the Marathon of Hope almost every day for 43 years, but writing is not my forte. Once I got into it, it became easier; the memories flowed out like a movie playing in my head. Reliving that summer was emotionally draining. I often typed with tears flowing. In the end, sharing his legacy and having the reader learn more about Terry as a human being is what I ultimately found rewarding.
Q: How did the run and your relationship with Terry change you as a person?
A: After the run I saw everything in a different perspective. My priorities changed, what was once important to me meant little. I have done everything I could to keep his legacy alive and, in doing so, hopefully have continued his dream of finding a cure. In that short time together, we developed a deep, personal relationship for which I will always be grateful.
Q: The Terry Fox Foundation has raised close to $1 billion. Why does his story still inspire today?
A: Terry was and is the iconic Canadian, representing the quintessential values of our nation, to give selflessly, to sacrifice, without consideration of personal pain or cost. The education system has kept his story alive using it in a myriad of ways in the classroom. The volunteers who work tirelessly to make the annual run a success and the fact that his story has spread around the world makes every Canadian proud.
He showed us one individual can make a difference and, with hard work, dreams can come true. We’re not done yet. We are a lot closer to cures for cancer, but we have to keep on fighting and people want to be part of that battle because cancer touches everyone. The fight is global, and Terry embodies that.
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