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.
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.