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How Betty Fox 'got over the hurt' to be face of Terry Fox's legacy

Runner Terry Fox holds his mother, Betty Fox's hand while being interviewed after his Marathon of Hope run ended in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

Isadore Sharp, who was deeply involved in the Marathon of Hope nearly from the outset, talks to Sandra Martin about his decades-long friendship with the woman who worked tirelessly to keep her son's memory - and mission - alive

You were friends with Betty Fox for more than 30 years. What did you think of her?

Very strong and opinionated and I guess that's where Terry got his ability to persevere. She had a mind of her own and voiced her opinions quite forcefully. She was a strong person and clearly the leader of the family. She was very sensitive to what Terry's wishes would have been: maintain the integrity of what he set out to do, which was money for cancer research. She said what she wanted to say and didn't couch her words in any diplomatic fashion. She wasn't always sensitive to other people, but you could forgive her for it because she was under such stress herself.

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Who asked her to become the family spokesperson for the annual Terry Fox run?

I did. I told her if she wanted the run to really have meaning, and to have longevity, she would have to become the spokesperson, be out there, travel and try to keep Terry's image alive because people's memories are short. I said, "I know what you are going to go through, but I know Terry would want you to do this because of how much he wanted this to be a success." We became quite close in those first few years.

It is my impression that she was an ordinary woman who grew into a symbol of ferocious motherhood. Do you agree?

Very much so. She had an innate sense of the feelings a parent has for a child, what I think of as the only true love. It is involuntary. You can't stop yourself and no matter what your child does, you have blind faith in protecting them. So she took on this responsibility and it grew with her and then it became a way of life. She got over the hurt and the pain and then it became a dedication. Now I guess the family will decide how they will work together. Terry represents something that everybody identifies with: the courage and the desire to help others.

Is that what you saw in him when you first heard about this kid running across the country in 1980? Or did you think of Terry in terms of your own teenage son Chris who had died of melanoma two years earlier?

I did, but it was what Terry was trying to do. He was setting himself a challenge that was impossible. You look at these people who set goals that are beyond our ability to imagine and it attracts you to them. I was intrigued. This kid thinks he can do something that is unimaginable, so I tried to help a bit. I had Bev Norris in the marketing department keep track of him. She called back from the Maritimes and said it was terrible. "People are laughing, cars are almost running him off the road, nobody is taking him seriously." So I decided that we as a company would do something in a pro-active way. We put an ad in newspapers and magazines saying we would contribute $2 a mile and so, if he got as far as Vancouver, that would be $10,000 that we would donate. And I invited 999 other companies to join the Four Seasons to make it a $10-million run.

He heard about it and he called me in a cracking, emotional voice and he said, "I was just ready to quit I was so dejected, but if one person cares enough," he said, "that's all I need." And that got him going and he just kept going until people saw that this kid was serious. He got a lot further than anybody thought he would get. He had an inner strength that I think came from his faith in himself.

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Do you think he had the sense that his time was short?

When he got to Toronto, I met with him. I was telling him "Terry, this has become bigger than you ever thought and when you get to Vancouver, it will be a world class event and we should be preparing now for what that could mean to you." And he said, "No, I don't want to do any of that." I thought then, from the way he said it that he knew he wasn't going to make it. I sensed that he was feeling the pain and knowing he was going to be limited to how much more he could do. He said, "I am going to run until I can't."

Was it your idea to turn his Marathon of Hope into an annual run?

Yeah. After he stopped, I sent him a telegram, saying I would try to do something in his honour, but didn't know what. Then I checked with his mother about the idea of holding an annual run. He didn't want anybody to finish his run. So I said, "Why don't we make it, as you have often talked about, a family event? No competition, just a fund raising event for families. He liked that. So that was my connection, giving him an undertaking that I would, from the company point of view, do something in his honour to raise money for cancer research. All he wanted was to make sure that was going to happen.

He took cancer out of the closet. He always presented himself with his leg exposed. I had a big luncheon organized for him when he came to Toronto. He got up and spoke without notes and from the heart. The audience was dead silent. He was holding a paper clip in his hand and he was flicking it and you could hear it over the microphones because it was such a still moment. He had the presence of somebody you knew was very special.

He was an unusual person like most of the heroes that you hear about. They go through life without anybody noticing them until something happens and they step forward. It is never the outspoken, out-front macho characters who become heroes; it is the kids in the crowd who live and die by their principles and become extraordinary in circumstances that call upon people to live by what they believe in. He was a remarkable man, wise beyond his years.

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Every year when the run would come up I would ache for Betty Fox because she had to relive her son's death in interviews and appearances.

The first few years it was hard. I wasn't guilty about putting the pressure on her because she had something to look forward to, she had a job that was going to keep her going. The pain was always going to be there, but this was an opportunity that I sensed would be good for her for the rest of her life. And it was. Because of Terry we have raised over $500-million. But he has also helped his mother. He gave her a cause that made her life better, having suffered that loss. You think you can't do something from the grave, but he did.

Did the other children suffer because of her dedication to Terry?

I don't know. They might have because Terry became very special to her because of what he went though and the world's attention.. It surely must have been difficult for the other kids, but they rallied and became involved in the organization.

Who will take over from her?

It works as a family. They do a majority vote on things. Before there were five, so there was always somebody to break a tie. But her voice carried the day. The other four could say something, but when she said something that is always the way it went. She really was the leader of the family. Now I guess the family will decide how they will work together.

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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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