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Fox's Home for 143 Days (Posted On: Wednesday, July 30, 2008)

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For 143 days, a cream-coloured 1980 Ford Econoline was Terry Fox's home and his refuge during his Marathon of Hope.  Today, the van is a rolling piece of national history, a connection to one of the greatest Canadians, crossing the country on a new journey called the Tour of Hope.

Terry's brother, Darrell, who now heads the Terry Fox Foundation, brought the van to OslerBrook Golf and Country Club, July 24, as the club hosted a Tour of Hope golf tournament. The event raised more than $25,000 for the Terry Fox Foundation.

“Terry Fox is a true Canadian hero,”said OslerBrook General Manager Tom Jackson. “The Foundation and what they've done since Terry's passing, collecting over $400 million, that's an extremely worthy cause that OslerBrook is thrilled to be involved with.” Organizers of the event played a little trick on the golfers, telling them the van had broken down in Collingwood and was delayed while repairs were done. In reality, the van and a 1980 OPP patrol car, like that ones that accompanied the Marathon of Hope across Ontario, were tucked away in a maintenance shed waiting for the last golfers to finish their rounds. On cue, with the wailing police siren announcing their approach, the cruiser and van made their way to a place of honour at the clubhouse entrance.

During the spring and summer of 1980, the van was almost as familiar a sight as Fox himself.  So often we saw photos or video of Fox jogging along the road with the van following. Fox took his rest breaks and most of his meals in the van, which had been outfitted with a Funcraft camper package including air conditioning, a stove and fridge, a stereo and a chemical toilet. It was designed to sleep six, but as the Marathon of Hope progressed some of the space was given over to dirty laundry, food, and other belongings of Terry and his road crew of brother Darrell and friend Doug Alward.

Darrell, who joined his brother and Alward at St. John, NB, said he's thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to share his memories of the Marathon of Hope and to hear from many of the millions of people who watched it pass on the roads or followed its progress every day in the news media.

The van, he said, “was Terry's home away from home. It's where he slept every night, where he prepared for the Marathon every day, and where he felt protected from the madness outside.”

Terry Fox, who lost his right leg to cancer in 1977 at age 18, planned his Marathon of Hope with two goals in mind. The first was to raise $1 million for cancer research. The second was to show the world that will and determination can beat adversity, even the loss of a limb. He told writer Leslie Scrivener that he felt compelled to do all he could to improve the chances of cancer patients to survive and recover.

He started his run April 12, 1980, when he dipped his artificial foot into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean near St. John's, Nfld. By the time he reached Ontario, the Marathon of Hope was attracting massive national and  international media attention and crowds were lining the routes or gathering to greet him in cities, towns and villages.

Then the crushing news. By September 1, as his journey continued along the Trans Canada Highway east of Thunder Bay, Fox began experiencing serious chest pains and breathing problems. He willed himself to continue past a line of supporters along the road, but as soon as he'd run out of sight of the crowd he climbed into the van and asked Alward to take him to a hospital. Doctors in Thunder Bay told him the cancer had spread from his legs to his lungs.

Everyone hoped it was just a postponement. On a stretcher as he was being taken to an ambulance for transport home to British Columbia, Fox said he was going back to B.C. for treatment but promised to try to resume the run as soon as he was well enough.  “I'm gonna do my very best,” he said to the news cameras that surrounded him, the emotion and pain evident on his face. “I'll fight. I promise I won't give up.”

As Fox fought for his life, the donations kept coming, totaling about $25 million, far beyond Fox's original goal of $1 million. Honours came, too. Fox was the youngest person ever to receive the Order of Canada, he was awarded the Lou Marsh Trophy for outstanding athletic achievement, and his portrait was placed in the Sports Hall of Fame.

When Terry Fox passed away on June 28, 1981, the nation went into mourning. But his story didn't end there. The first Terry Fox Run was held the following September, with 300,000 participants in towns and cities across Canada. Annual runs are held in many more communities today. And the Terry Fox Foundation was formed to manage the funds, providing grants to cancer researchers. More than $400 million has been raised to date.

The story of the van's history came to light over the past couple of years.  The Fox family was able to preserve nearly 100,000 artifacts in the Terry Fox archives. But no one in the family knew what had become of the biggest relic of all, the van. The family, after all, had put aside the Marathon of Hope while they cared for Terry.  “Our priority was Terry, not the van,” Darrell recalls. “We didn't really lose it. It was just misplaced.”

One day in 2006, Douglas Coupland, who'd written the 2005 book Terry, marking the 25th anniversary of Fox's journey, happened to be at a house party in North Vancouver. Coupland found himself in conversation with someone who'd read his book and admired both the book and Terry Fox. The person told Coupland he knew the whereabouts of the Marathon of Hope van. It was owned by a neighbour in east Vancouver. 

Coupland contacted Darrell Fox. The next day the pair went looking for the van. They knew the street, but not the house number. As soon as they turned onto the street, Darrell spotted the van parked at the curb. He knew, right away, it was same van.  They knocked on doors until they found the right house. The wife of the owner said they were aware it was the same van Terry had used for his Marathon of Hope.

A little more detective work unveiled the rest of the van's history.  After the Marathon of Hope came to its end, the Ford Econoline that had followed Fox for 5,373 kilometres had been driven from Thunder Bay to Cambridge, Ont., where it was sold.

“The van had been on loan and when the run ended it went back to a dealership,” Darrell said. “Originally, we thought it went to London but we recently learned it was actually taken to Cambridge.”

That owner kept it until 1989 then sold it to a new owner, Bill Johnson Sr. of St. Thomas. In 2000, Johnson gave it to his son, Bill Jr., who used it as a touring vehicle for his heavy metal rock band called Removal .“Bill Sr. said it was in pristine condition and there were only about 100,000 km on it at that time,”Darrell said. “We were able to determine, recently, that Bill Jr. put another 260,000 km on it.”

Darrell Fox says the Johnsons told him the van never let them down. “It had really good karma,” Darrell recalls the owners telling him. He added that the van had travelled to destinations all over North America.

By the time Coupland and Fox found the vehicle, the body was badly rusted from 20 years of Ontario winters. But there was a pleasant surprise -- the interior was almost exactly as it looked in 1980. Nothing had been changed except that one section of the top bunk had been removed. Darrell recalls the he and Alward always shared that bunk while Terry slept on the pull-out bed below.

Bill Johnson Jr. held onto the van a little longer but, in 2007, agreed to give it to the Terry Fox Foundation for a nominal fee. The Foundation faced a quandary -- the body needed so much work that they worried restoring it might remove some of the van's historic credibility. In the end, they decided to approach Ford of Canada to see about having it restored. Ford supplied the new body parts and restored the exterior, while the interior was merely cleaned. One thing has changed. Many who visited Terry during his run recall the rather unpleasant odour inside the van, a mixture of sweaty clothing and the chemical toilet. “It's odor-free now,” Darrell said with a laugh, adding that the original toilet is still in the van.

Darrell says the van's true value is the ability to allow Canadians to reconnect with that memorable summer and a true national hero.“I never tire of hearing those stories and knowing that Terry is as important to so many others as he is to me,” Darrell said. He adds that the van is more than just a relic. “We open the doors and the memories flow out of it. There are a lot of interesting, fascinating stories. I knew how important a role the van played for Terry, and for Doug and myself, but when so many people share their memories of seeing the van in 1980 it confirms the importance of it to so many other people. And, after all, it did mark every mile that Terry ran.”


Written by Rob Potter for mycollingwood.ca

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