BORN: Winnipeg, Manitoba • 28 July 1958
DIED: New Westminster, British Columbia • 28 June 1981
THE HEADLINES AND THE PICTURES FROM THE sweltering summer of 1980 recall a story of heroism and hope. There is Terry Fox, a sunny-faced British Columbia kid, his pained grimace staring out of a couple of small newspaper pictures. He is literally hobbling his way across Canada.
He lost a leg to cancer, and now, with the headstrong idealism that only a twenty-one year old can muster, he decides to do something about it.Nobody cares much at first; initially, stories in the newspapers about him are tough to find. It seems that in the spring of 1980 cancer is nothing new, and Fox’s idea of running across Canada to raise money to fight the disease receives only grudging support from the Canadian Cancer Society.
He heads for the eastern¬ most tip of Newfoundland anyway and starts a gruelling regimen of lonely miles. A friend driving a van loaded with supplies is usually his only company.It seems certain that the national news media will “discover” Terry Fox eventually. They do when he hits Ontario. The headlines grow more frequent, and more and more people want to line his route to see the man with one artificial leg and one “good” leg.
These are hot days, and this is hard work: he’s always sweating in the photographs. Surprisingly, the media does not tire of the feel-good story and, as Fox nears Toronto, his “Marathon of Hope” has captured the country.
Thousands of dollars are pouring in for cancer research—hundreds of these are squeezed into his hands by spectators who seem overwhelmed at the sight of him . When tens of thousands triumphantly greet Terry Fox at Toronto’s City Hall, it is the lead story around the nation. A new Canadian hero has been born.
Only a handful of weeks later, a blizzard of headlines piles up again. It is August, and near Thunder Bay the summer’s happiest story has turned tragic. Terry Fox is sick; doctors suspect the worst. Pictures of his worried parents taking him home to British Columbia are impossibly moving. Fox vows to return to continue the run, and millions hold their breath.
But the news is all bad: Terry Fox is dying. Nobody is giving up hope, of course—the doctors quoted in the papers argue that if anyone can beat this wretched disease, it is Fox, “I think it’s unfair. Very unfair,” is all his grieving father can manage.
In the end even Terry Fox cannot win this race. Early the next summer, he dies. He is not quite twenty-three years old. Canadians from the four corners of the land weep openly. Memorials are planned, and millions continue to flow into his cancer research fund. By the time he dies, $24 million has been raised.
This money, and the money that continued to flow to fight the cancer that killed him, made sure that Terry Fox’s life changed the lives of thousands of others. The annual runs held in his name in Canada and in foreign capitals around the world every September continue to grow in popularity. Flis legacy as the most prominent disabled athlete of his era pushed the limits of the possi ble for differently abled people everywhere.
These were impressive achievements for a short life; enough to earn him a ranking among the most influential of his contemporaries. But for Canadians, Terry Fox goes deeper than that. He was more than the phenomenal fundraiser, and more even than the larger-than-life hero who briefly, brightly, flashed across our collective consciousness.
Fox struck a chord not for what he did but for who he was. He was the high school athlete who never emotionally recov¬ ered from losing his leg. He was the university student who could not be persuaded to give up an impossible dream.
Most of all, he was someone whose dream involved conquering the Canadian landscape—the massive, forbidding stretch of territory that somehow, against the odds, unites and is part of us. He did unite us: awkwardly, fleetingly, symbolically, Fox summed up who Canadians really wanted to be.