Terry Fox and Bill Vigars stand along a roadside just south of Sudbury

Terry Fox and Bill Vigars stand along a roadside just south of Sudbury

‘Terry carried people’s emotions with him’

White Rock resident Bill Vigars recalls his time on Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope

The first time Bill Vigars met Terry Fox, both were bleary-eyed, having not had much sleep the night before.

It was just after 4 a.m. outside a motel in Edmundston, N.B., and the 21-year-old Fox – who’d had his right leg amputated in 1977 after being diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer – was slogging through the early stages of his 1980 Marathon of Hope, and about to set out on another 26 miles.

Vigars was there as a representative of the Canadian Cancer Society, his bosses having sent him on a late flight from Toronto in April that year to meet with Fox “and sort of give him a boost.”

After arriving at the motel in the wee hours of the morning, Vigars – who started as a volunteer with the society and had only been officially working there a few months – decided against getting a room, choosing instead to wait outside for Fox, who would be running in mere hours.

Vigars laughs when he recalls Fox’s first words to him.

“He said, ‘You’re the guy from the cancer society? I think he was expecting some guy in a suit, and here I was, a guy who had just spent the night sleeping in his car. But we really hit it off.”

The two had spoken on the phone a few days earlier, when Fox was in Sheet Harbour, N.S., and Vigars had asked him what he wanted to do when he got to Ontario.

‘I’d like to meet Trudeau, I’d like to meet Bobby Orr and Darryl Sittler, I’d like to go to the CN Tower and I’d like to go to a Blue Jays game,” Fox said.

A day later, Vigars had most, if not all, of it planned – except for a meeting with the prime minister.

“I couldn’t find him,” chuckled Vigars, now a semi-retired public-relations professional living on the Peninsula.

After meeting Fox in New Brunswick, Vigars stayed on with the touring group and became Fox’s de facto public-relations director and schedule-keeper.

Estimating when Fox would arrive in certain cities, Vigars would call ahead in an effort drum up support, in the name of raising money for cancer research.

“There’s a kid with one leg who is running across Canada, would you be interested in holding an event?” he would ask.

The response was often the same.

“Well, if he makes it this far, sure, we’ll do something.”

As Fox made his way from the Maritimes through Quebec and southern Ontario in that summer, the Marathon of Hope really took off.

And despite 34 years having passed, Vigars still carries with him a well of memories. Dates, cities, names, faces – he remembers it all.

He recalls how – because of a last-minute offer – Fox decided against going to Parliament Hill and instead ended up doing a ceremonial kickoff at an Ottawa Rough Riders game.

Vigars was there, at midfield with Fox, when Ottawa star Tony Gabriel – now a Canadian Football League hall of famer – told Fox he was the country’s greatest athlete.

And he remembers Oshawa, Ont., when a young mother told Fox that he “was running for my little boy.”

“Where is he? I’d love to meet him,” Fox said.

“He died of cancer last week,” the mother replied.

“That was one of the few times during the trip that I just lost it,” Vigars said. “I had to walk away, and take a minute.”

It was then that he realized Fox’s journey was taking more than just a physical toll.

“It wasn’t just an athletic achievement, to run all those miles. Terry carried so many people’s emotions with him, too. Like in Oshawa, I took a minute to step away, but Terry couldn’t take a break from it. He took it all in. He ran with it all.”

There were down times, too.

In the early stages, Vigars said, Fox was disillusioned with the lack of attention his run was bringing to cancer. Conversely, at the Marathon of Hope’s height, he was worried that what he was doing was overshadowing the real issue – curing cancer.

Mostly, though, what Vigars remembers is Fox himself.

He remembers his great, silly sense of humour, and that he loved to playfully argue with his younger brother, Darrell, about just about anything.

He wasn’t the most polished of public speakers – whether speaking to thousands at a large rally in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square, or to a few people on a rural roadside in some small town – but he always spoke from the heart. That, Vigars thinks, is what drew so many people to him.

“He didn’t have speech writers, or a PR team telling him what to say. When he talked, it was just real.”

After 5,300 kilometres, Fox was forced to stop his cross-Canada journey in Thunder Bay on Sept. 1, when it was discovered that the cancer had spread to his lungs.

Vigars, along with Terry’s parents, Betty and Rolland, was with Fox in the ambulance in Thunder Bay, and he remembers clearly a conversation Fox had with his father.

“This is so unfair,” his dad lamented.

“No it isn’t. I’m not any different than anybody else. Sometimes cancer comes back,” Terry replied. “And maybe this will help people realize better why I’m doing this.”

Fox returned home to Coquitlam to receive cancer treatment, while Vigars went back to Ontario. The last time he saw Fox was that winter, when Vigars came west to visit the ailing runner in the hospital.

“When I left, I gave him a hug,” he said. “The last thing I ever said to him was, ‘I will make you live forever.’”

Fitting words, considering all that’s come since.

In the years following the Marathon of Hope, and after Fox’s death in 1981 at age 22, Terry Fox Run fundraisers have amassed more than $600 million for cancer research. Each year, thousands of events are held in more than 30 countries.

The Terry Fox Foundation, Vigars points out, has many volunteers and few overhead costs, which means 84 cents of every dollar donated goes directly to research.

On the Peninsula, the Rotary Club of White Rock has for the last 17 years held a run at South Surrey Athletic Park. Last year’s run raised $15,000.

On Sept. 9 (Tuesday), Vigars was set to speak to the host rotary club about his experiences with Terry.

Other Surrey runs are scheduled for Newton and Cloverdale Sunday, although public-school runs are dependent on the current labour dispute.

Though the run that bears Fox’s name is now well-known worldwide, Vigars admits to a few nervous moments in the mid-1980s.

“It was the greatest adventure of my whole life… but I was always worried it would kind of fade out, like so many of these kind of events do,” he said.

“But it never did. So many people are still inspired by him. It’s like he’s still around.”

Surrey events

Three Terry Fox Runs are planned around town – all on Sunday, Sept. 14.

South Surrey

Held at the Rotary Fieldhouse at South Surrey Athletic Park, registration is set for 8 a.m., with the run at 9 a.m. There are two circuits, a 1.6-km or six-km route. Participants can run, walk or cycle.

“We are really proud to be able to put on this event every year,” said Rotary Club of White Rock president Joan Apel.

To download a pledge sheet, or to donate online, go to www.terryfox.org/run

Cloverdale

The Cloverdale event begins at the Cloverdale Legion (17567 57 Ave.) at 10 a.m. Sunday, and wraps up by noon. There are one-km, five-km and 10-km routes, and participants are encouraged to run, walk, bike or rollerblade.

Newton

Scheduled for Bear Creek Park, registration is at 8 a.m. and the event begins at 9 a.m. The routes – one, five or 10 km – are suitable for runners/walkers, cyclists and those with wheelchairs, but is not suitable for rollerbladers.

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