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Betty Fox kept Marathon of Hope pure and Terry Fox's legacy alive

Betty Fox, mother of Terry Fox photographed this week in Prince Edward Island. Betty Fox has been on a marathon of her own, travelling and spreading the word that cancer research needs more money.

Nina Linton/nina linton The Globe and Mail

No parent ever expects to bury a child; it is against the natural order of human life. Yet that was the challenge that Betty Fox had to face when her son Terry died of metastatic osteogenic sarcoma on June 28, 1981. He was 22.

Back then, cancer was shrouded in fear and ignorance. Many couldn't even say the word, referring to the disease as the Big C, as though even to pronounce it aloud might incur bad luck. Terry Fox took it out of the closet. And his mother made certain that his heroic attempt to run across the country on one leg stayed in the forefront of people's minds.

Terry died knowing he had raised more than $24-million for cancer research, one dollar for every person living in Canada at the time. Since then his mother has ferociously protected his memory, fought off the commercialization of his name, and championed the annual Terry Fox run that has raised more than $500-million for cancer research in the last 30 years.

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An ordinary wife and working mother who became an extraordinary symbol of ferocious motherhood, Betty Fox was stubborn, blunt of speech and hot-tempered when riled. She was "very strong and opinionated and that's where I guess Terry got his ability to persevere," said Isadore "Issy" Sharp of the Four Seasons Hotel chain and the person who persuaded Betty Fox to become the public face of the Terry Fox run. "She was clearly the leader of the family. Everybody relied on her judgment," he said.

Her ethical compass was always set on her personal true north: What would Terry have wanted? Over the years she's kept the run pure: non-competitive, open to all, no product endorsements. The first national run was held on Sept. 13, 1981, less than three months after Terry died. "There are days," she told a journalist as the 20th anniversary of the Marathon of Hope approached, "when I have said to hell with it – let somebody else do it, this is too hard on me."

But aside from grumbling, she could never give up the cold calls, visits to hospices and corporations, and meetings with run organizers. "I believe in what Terry started. If I didn't believe that research was working, no way would I be here so many years later," she said.

At the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics in February, 2010, she donned a white suit to help carry in the Canadian flag to represent her son's place in the hearts of Canadians. Two weeks later she and her husband Rolly walked across B.C. Place Stadium in Vancouver carrying the Paralympic torch to ignite the flame that officially opened those Games. "Carrying the flame in meant so much to both of us because we were carrying it for Terry, not for us or our family, but for our son," she told reporters later. "I have to say that I know Terry's watching and he would be so proud of all these athletes for the Paralympics."

Betty Fox died yesterday morning in Chilliwack, B.C. She was in her early 70s and had been suffering from diabetes, arthritis and other illnesses. "Betty was comfortable the last few weeks and months of her life, was always full of wit and rarely alone," said a message from her family on The Terry Fox Foundation Website. Unlike her son's death in the glare of a public and media spotlight, her final days were closely guarded. "We have greatly appreciated the privacy granted to our family since Betty's illness was shared and are hoping it continues at this difficult time," said the message signed by her husband Rolly, and surviving children Fred, Darrell and Judi. Funeral arrangements have not been disclosed.

Betty Fox was born in the late 1930s. She grew up in Melita, a farming community 320 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg. As a girl, she was a tomboy who loved to play ball with her brothers and was a maternal figure to her youngest sister, Norma.

High school didn't interest her much and she quit before graduating to train as a hairdresser in Winnipeg. That's where she met Rolland (Rolly) Fox, a switchman for Canadian National Railway. They married in 1956. Their first son, Fred, was born a year later. He was named after her elder brother, who had lost both legs when he was in a plane crash in whiteout conditions in the northern part of the province. Their second son, Terry, was born on July 28, 1958, followed by their third son, Darrell, in 1961 and their only daughter, Judith (Judi), in 1964.

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Rolly Fox disliked the bitter Winnipeg winters so much that he asked for a transfer to Vancouver in 1966, even though the price was heavy: The loss of 12 years seniority at work. The family settled in Surrey, B.C., and moved two years later to Port Coquitlam. Betty was a stay-at-home mother while her children were small and then she began working in a stationery shop. The family work ethic and code of behaviour were instilled early: The children were expected to stay out of trouble, use honorifics when addressing adults and find jobs in the summers and to save money to pay for extras such as sports equipment.

The Foxes were like many other working families until Terry was diagnosed with cancer in March, 1977. He was 18, an undergraduate at Simon Fraser University and an avid athlete. The night before the surgery, Terry's basketball coach dropped by the hospital with an issue of Runner's World containing an article about Dick Traum, an above-the- knee amputee who had run in the New York Marathon.

Terry was barely out of treatment – 16 months of chemotherapy and rehabilitation – when he began training for what his mother thought were self-esteem-building local marathons. She learned the truth in September, 1979, when Terry, flush with accomplishment from finishing his first competitive run as an amputee, told her that his real goal was to run across the country to raise money for cancer research. She yelled and screamed, and so apparently did he, as she tried to argue him out of doing something so dangerous and foolish. It was an argument she couldn't win for Terry believed that the physical demands of the road were nothing compared to the suffering and fear he had witnessed on the cancer ward.

He dipped his prosthesis into the Atlantic Ocean in the St. John's harbour in Newfoundland on April 12, 1980, and began his run, hoping to raise $1-million. His school friend Doug Alward was with him, driving the van, supplied by Ford, with "Marathon of Hope Cross Country Run in Aid of Cancer Research" printed on the side. His parents charted their progress in media accounts and a weekly collect phone call from the road.

When the two young men got on each other's nerves and started fighting, Terry phoned home in tears from Sheet Harbour, N.S., to say he needed help. His parents took a week's vacation and flew to Halifax where they thrashed out the conflicts between the two young men. And then they reluctantly offered up another son to the road, Terry's younger brother Darrell, 17. He left Grade 12 a month early so he could join the Marathon as an emotional safety valve. Darrell, who has been national director of the Terry Fox Foundation since 1990, is still taking care of his older brother.

About this time the run got the attention of Issy Sharp, founder and CEO of Four Seasons Hotel and Resorts. He and his wife Rosalie were no strangers to cancer. Their son Christopher had died, age 18, of melanoma on March 10, 1978, a year after Terry's diagnosis. He was intrigued by a one-legged kid "trying to do the impossible" and run across the country. Sharp offered food and accommodation at his hotels en route; and when Terry was discouraged because so few people were making donations, Sharp pledged $2 a mile and persuaded close to 1,000 other corporations to do the same.

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After 143 days, Terry had accumulated 5,373 kilometres and was more than halfway across the country with his awkward but endearing two hops, a skip and a sort of a jump when he had to quit on Sept. 1, 1980, just east of Thunder Bay, Ont. "The day before I had run 26 miles and now I couldn't even walk across the road," he said later about the end of his run.

With her short stature, helmet of grey hair, direct gaze, Betty Fox was already a recognizable figure. Who could forget the way she clasped her son's hand as he told reporters the cancer had come back? The following day Sharp sent a telegram to the Fox family committing to organizing an annual fundraising run in Terry's name "until your dream to find a cure for cancer is realized." Terry pinned that telegram to his hospital bed.

His marathon was over, but for millions of others it was just beginning. After Terry's death, then prime minister Pierre Trudeau said in the House of Commons: "It occurs very rarely in the life of a nation that the courageous spirit of one person unites all people in the celebration of his life and in the mourning of his death. …We do not think of him as one who was defeated by misfortune, but as one who inspired us with the example of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity."

Even though they were in deep mourning, Betty and Rolly Fox visited many communities to open Terry Fox schools, playgrounds and to unveil statues. While her husband was shy and spoke hesitantly from prepared texts, Betty was a natural as a public speaker and soon had a heavy schedule, travelling thousands of kilometres a year on behalf of the run and her son's legacy. On the 10th anniversary of Terry's run, she and her husband retraced his route by car, visiting schools where he had spoken and homes where he had eaten meals and been given a bed.

The anniversaries never got easier, but she always agreed to interview requests. Memories of the confrontation she'd had with her son back in September, 1979, stayed with her. "He said, 'I thought you'd be one of the first persons to believe in me,'" she told Maclean's in 2005, sitting in the living room of her mobile retirement home in Chilliwack in the Fraser Valley. "And I wasn't. I was the first person who let him down." Even if that were true, she more than made up for those early doubts. She believed in him and kept the faith alive for the rest of her own life.

Last year on the eve of the 29th annual run, she retold that story to The Globe, but she was more forgiving of herself. "It didn't matter what we said to Terry. We knew he was going to [do it]and rather than argue and try to talk him out of it, we went along with him and just did our best to help him get things ready to go." And so she did.

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About the Author
Feature writer

Sandra Martin is a Globe columnist and the author of the award-winning book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices. A long-time obituary writer for The Globe, she has written the obituaries of hundreds of significant Canadians, including Pierre Berton, Jackie Burroughs, Ed Mirvish, June Callwood, Arthur Erickson, and Ken Thomson. More

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