Forty years ago, in 1980, Canada and the world saw the beginning of a magnificent story. It was a story of an unknown young man and his dream to help others afflicted with the cruel disease that had caused him to lose his leg.

What the world and much of Canada does not know is the story of Ron Calhoun, the man tasked with saying yes or no to Terry’s idea of running across Canada to raise money to find a cure for cancer.

Here is what was happening forty years ago.

On October 15, 1979, Ron Calhoun received a surprising call from Blair Mackenzie, the Executive Director of the British Columbia Division of the Canadian Cancer Society. A young man had walked into his office who wanted to run across Canada to raise research dollars for cancer. Blair told Ron about the young man and his idea. Sitting in his office in London, Ontario, Ron, the National Special Events Chair for the Cancer Society, knew that no countrywide mechanism existed in the Society to handle such a mammoth project. It would have to be done province by province.

By the end of the call Ron had told Blair that the young man would have to find his own transportation from the west coast to the east coast, he’d have to line up a vehicle with sleeping accommodations where they needed it, a driver, hotels, food supply—a store with a national brand—all across the country, and a companion to go with him. If he did all of those things, Ron promised they would talk further.

He thought that would be the end of it.

About six weeks later Blair called again and said, “He’s back, Ron, and he’s done everything you asked. And by the way, he’s an amputee.”

His mind spinning, Ron listened to Blair describe the young man’s vision. He mentioned Terry’s initial letter and Ron asked to have it read to him over the phone. Blair complied. 

Chapter One, The Man Behind the Marathons by Elaine Cougler.

If you haven’t already, take the time now to read Terry’s words which Blair read over the phone to Ron Calhoun.

Ron went to work in his job as National Special Events Chair for the Canadian Cancer Society. He had two major hurdles to get over. He had to approach the Canadian Cancer Society executive and get their permission to run this national event and he had to approach all of the provincial organizations for their approval as well. If even one province opted out, the event just wouldn’t work.

In his initial letter to the Canadian executive, Ron used the term “Marathon of Hope” and it stuck. From that point on Terry’s run became the Marathon of Hope. in late 1979, Ron talked to the cross Canada group he had called to Toronto and convinced every province to take part.

Next the real work began as Ron planned just how to make the marathon safe for Terry, to get contributions from major groups to support the marathon, and to try to foresee any problems that might happen.

In early April of 1980, Ron was sure he had done all he could to organize the launch from his office in London. Terry Fox and his small entourage, including his long-time friend Doug Alward, traveled from BC to St. John’s NL for the start of the Marathon of Hope. Harry Lake of the Newfoundland Division of the Canadian Cancer Society was on hand to make sure everything went smoothly.

It was April 12th. While spring might be arriving in other parts of Canada, Newfoundland was still in the cold hard grip of a normal winter with winds whirling snow between the buildings and howling across the open spaces of the busy seaport.

For the pictures that would be taken, Terry was dressed in what would become his running uniform—a Marathon of Hope T-shirt and a pair of loose shorts that allowed good movement for running. The curly haired young man removed his artificial leg, teetered a little, grinned at those with him, and dipped the leg into St. John’s Harbour. He was finally starting his journey and joy oozed from every frozen pore. The cameras clicked softly as Terry smiled. He didn’t even seem to be cold although everyone else rubbed hands together, stamped in the snow and huddled in a group against the wind.

The team helped a now shivering Terry lower a large jug into the water and fill it as best they could. That water would go to British Columbia and, at the end of the run, be dumped into the shallow shore waters of the Pacific Ocean where Terry planned to dip his artificial leg in triumph.

The photo-taking over, Doug Alward helped Terry into his warm clothes surrounded by a few who had come to witness this unique undertaking. The media had heard of this courageous young man from Port Coquitlam, BC with a huge dream, and asked Terry a few questions. Then they packed up their equipment and everyone rushed back to the warm vehicles and on to the reception.

Harry Lake was in charge of the sendoff and Ron had arranged for the mayor to speak. He knew that by bringing out well-known dignitaries to speak at these events the media would come and Terry would get the publicity he so desperately needed if he were to be successful.

By the time all of the dignitaries had spoken and Terry had smiled and said a few words, he was really anxious to get started. He shifted from one foot to the other as the cameras clicked before a sea of smiles from the crowd. Finally, the crew was able to rush Terry to the official starting point for the Marathon of Hope. The twenty-one-year-old hopped out of the van in his extra-warm running clothes and headed off into the Newfoundland blizzard.

Chapter One, The Man Behind the Marathons by Elaine Cougler.

Ron worked from his office at GM Diesel in London, Ontario, and kept tabs on what was happening on the road. After a tiff between Terry and Doug, Ron asked Harry Lake for Terry’s medical certificate showing that he was physically fit to do this marathon. Harry called him a few hours later and said he had the medical.

“You’re not going to like it,” he said to Ron. “It simply says he shouldn’t be doing this run. He has a very serious heart condition.”

If Ron had been concerned on the first call, now he was terrified. Not only was the Cancer Society involved in something that might fizzle and die before it had really started but also Terry could at any time have a heart attack.

Chapter One, The Man Behind the Marathons by Elaine Cougler.

[Stay tuned for Part II on February 26, 2020]

Ron and Terry in Thamesford, Ontario, July 16, 1980.
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