The Making of a Canadian Folk Hero

Who is your hero?

I remember my parents asking me this very question, among many, as we were sitting at the kitchen table one day partaking in some sort of quiz.  I remember that my answer was Terry Fox although, to be perfectly honest, I was only eleven and I hardly knew anything about him.  I knew he had run half way across Canada the previous summer in an effort to raise money for cancer research but that by itself doesn’t explain my response.  If anything my answer was akin to a word association and by the spring of 1981, the name Terry Fox and the word hero had become synonymous.  There is a German word, zeitgeist, which literally means “the spirit of the times” and without question Terry touched upon something quite special that summer.

Terry Fox has to this day fascinated me.  Not the 21 year old kid who embarked upon that famous one-legged run, but the other one, the one that emerged after he died whose name adorned schools, roads, buildings, parks, trails, an 8761ft mountain and even a Coast Guard ship. There are statutes all over the country bearing his likeness, he was put on postage stamps and he has even been minted into legal currency.  In a nation with 200 years of history, with war heroes, great minds, countless cultural icons in entertainment and sports, 19 Nobel prize winners including  doctors that have actually cured a disease, it is the name Terry Fox which adorns more things and appears in more places than any other Canadian – ever.

The real Terry Fox was a gifted high school athlete who, at age 18, was diagnosed with bone cancer and had to have his right leg amputated.  It was 1977, the year that Jim Fixx published “The Complete Guide to Running“, the year Brendan Kelly ran across Canada to promote the Canada Games, a time when everyone, including Forrest Gump was running.  Terry’s primary inspiration though was Dick Traum, who had just become the first person with an artificial leg to complete the New York Marathon.  His recovery from surgery morphed into training and by the summer of 1979 he had already completed his first marathon.  The next year, with the support of the Canadian Cancer Society, he ran 3339 miles in a 143 day journey known as the Marathon of Hope.

It all began with little fanfare on April 12, 1980.  The local TV station came out to film Terry ceremoniously dipping his artificial leg into the Atlantic Ocean but otherwise it was hard to get any press coverage. Originally they had hoped to raise one million dollars on their cross country campaign but after ten weeks on the road they were on pace to raise only half that amount.  Quebec had been particularly difficult as Terry could not speak French but next up was Ottawa where Terry had been invited by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to take part in the July 1st Canada Day festivities and then onward to Toronto.

Toronto AKA the Centre of the Universe as it is disparagingly called by the rest of Canada is by far the largest media market in the country.  As Terry approached the city something happened, what fellow Canadian Malcom Gladwell would call a social epidemic broke out.  When he arrived in the city on July 11 he was greeted by a crowd of 10,000 supporters not the least of which was Darryl Sittler, the star captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs. From that moment onward everyone wanted to see the kid from BC who ran on one leg.  The donations poured in, the million dollar goal was soon eclipsed and a new goal of 24 million was proposed.  Celebrities past and present rushed to participate including fellow folk hero Bobby Orr who donated $25,000.  The torch had been passed.

While Terry was the toast of that summer the very nature of marathons means moving on and by mid-August he had passed all the major population centers and was making his way across the remote wilderness of Northern Ontario.  The rest of the country had begun to move on as well, the murder of Playmate Dorothy Stratton had captured the headlines and Terry was old news.  Fall comes early to many parts of Canada and with Terry just past the halfway point logic would dictate that he had no hope of reaching the West Coast that year.  Terry’s quest though defied logic, it was fueled by pure emotion right from the start and when he suspended his run at the end of the month due to his encroaching illness, the nation’s heart was broken.

There is something deep in the human psyche that reacts more positively to heroic failure than it does to outright success.  Perhaps it is because the very essence of being human is to eventually fall short.  The marathon was always about raising money and in that regard it had earned 1.7 million, far beyond what the organizers had initially hoped to achieve.   However if the cancer never returns and Terry completes his run how could he have possibly matched what really happened next?

First there was a hastily organized telethon, which drew big international stars like John Denver and Elton John.  Within an hour it doubled Terry’s fund raising total and kept on going.  He was made a Companion to the Order of Canada, the highest honour in the country and while he lay dying in a hospital bed he raised money at an incredible rate.  The goal of 24 million was surpassed on February1st the following year, an amount adjusted for inflation (CPI) that is worth over 63 million today. He set a Guinness’s World record for fund raising by an individual, a feat that has gone unchallenged for more than 30 years.  Four months later he died.

Terry was an inspiration to many people but no more so than a 14yr old boy named Steve Fonyo who had also lost a leg to cancer.  The teen took up the cause in 1984 and by the spring of 1985 he had both completed Terry’s intended 5000 mile route and raised 14 million dollars for cancer research.  However he was never able to capture the imagination of the country the way that Terry had that magical summer despite the fact that he completed the entire run and had raised seven times Terry’s initial sum.   When he was accepted into the Order of Canada it was as a lesser member than what Terry had been awarded.   He was seen as derivative, an accusation that Terry never had to face because Mark Kent and Brendan Kelly had never become famous.  Worst of all he lived long enough to irrevocably tarnish his image something Terry could never do.

As common wisdom would dictate, you never speak ill of the dead and that’s the way it was with Terry.  When he was at the height of his popularity rumours surfaced that he didn’t run all the way through Quebec.  Stories emerged about his refusal to see doctors which some attributed to his religious beliefs while others blamed it on his legendary temper.  However once it became clear that he was going to die any and all negative press disappeared and the tragic folk hero was born.

People have a tendency to ascribe phantom accomplishments upon people with the misfortune to die before they had any chance to achieve them.   People assume that Buddy Holly would have gone on to make a string of popular records however it is far more likely that he would have never composed another hit song.  Much of his enduring popularity was due to the exposure he got because of his death.  His career at that moment was no different from a hundred other artists and yet when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame opened in 1986, he was a charter member.  Consider for a moment Neil Diamond, he’s not in the Hall of Fame despite composing a dozen popular rock standards in the late 60’s.  Had he died in 69 or 70 and Buddy Holly instead been the one who lived to become an adult contemporary icon, Neil would already be enshrined.  Ironic as it may sound death is often a great career move.  Ninety percent of the population can’t name three songs by Janis Joplin and yet she sailed into the hall soon after she became eligible.

While musical ability is obviously a subjective exercise, what constitutes a hero?  In a 1999 national survey Terry Fox was named as Canada’s greatest hero.  Five years later the CBC had a series where they asked viewers to vote on the Greatest Canadian.  Terry finished second to former Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas the so called Father of Medicare.  This is  a somewhat dubious claim since his province didn’t get universal health care until after Douglas had left office and while in federal politics he served as the leader of a fringe third party group.  While he certainly shouted the loudest and the longest about this policy he was doing it mostly from the sidelines.  Likewise much of Terry’s enduring legacy is from the Terry Fox Run, a worldwide event which has raised upwards of 600 million dollars, but it didn’t get started until three months after he had died.  Then there are all the copycat fundraisers, like the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, the Relay for Life and countless others who were no doubt inspired by the incredible success of the Terry Fox Run.

Much of the folklore surrounding Terry’s ascent to hero status is the notion that he was at one time just an ordinary high school kid.  While I believe that much of his fame and influence, from his sudden disability to his heartbreaking death was a product of chance and not by design, it shouldn’t take away from the fact that he was an exceptionally driven individual with noble ambitions and for that alone he should be admired as someone who was at the very least extraordinary.  However if someone asked me today who was my hero I wouldn’t pick an illusionary idol.  I would tell them that my hero would be someone who wasn’t able to go on a cross Canada adventure because they were too burdened by the responsibilities of working, raising a family and doing all the little things that makes this country what it is today.  While that description would fit thousands of ordinary Canadians I would tell them there was one in particular I had in mind, someone who is often sitting across from me at the kitchen table.

EDIT:  On Monday March 14th 2011 Neil Diamond was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Laurie on February 7, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    Very thought provoking and well put-just stating facts really. I am a huge Terry Fox fan, but was not offended by your arguement. I think you may be finding your true hidden talent.


  2. Posted by Billy Crowe on February 7, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    Wow David – your prospective forces the reader to see a different side. I thought the article was brave, insightful and provocative. It is the type of article that your readers will be anxiously awaiting for the next article, as I am.


  3. Posted by Cindy Crowe on February 11, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    Dictating content and subject is censorship. Censorship opposes creativity. Your true voice is heard through the written word. Write what’s in your heart no matter who or what it is about…what comes out makes us all better thinkers!


  4. Posted by Linda on February 14, 2011 at 10:54 am

    Very interesting article, but it was the last paragraph and particularly the last sentence that sent shivers through my body!Well said! Wow, I am moved…


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