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03 February, 2017

BILL VIGARS WAS A TERRY FOX CONFIDANTE AND AN INTERESTING GUY

Bill Vigars helped organize Terry Fox's Marathon of Hope in 1980. On Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016 he 
was in Port Coquitlam, B.C. for the Annual Terry Fox Run with a replica of Fox's artificial leg.
Bill Vigars was an unusual kid, but in a rather good way. He was impish, funny, clever and prone to the unexpected.

Growing up in the then "railroad city" of St. Thomas, ON in the 1950s and '60s, he was a member of a salt-of-the-earth Catholic family that was firmly entrenched in the community. It was while a student at St. Joseph's High School that Bill began to come into his own as a think-outside-the-box creative thinker. You just knew that, with a twinkle in his eye and a hint of a permanent smirk indicative of something mischievous going on in his mind, he was destined to march to the beat of his own drummer. And, boy, did he ever! 

He cut his teeth in communications as a student reporter/announcer with CHLO radio in St. Thomas at a time when I was toiling as sports editor for the local Times-Journal newspaper. I was secretly fascinated by the hidden potential of the young man, but little did I expect that four decades later the Toronto Star would call the same Bill Vigars "one of the Top Ten Public Relations People in Canada” and “The Rainmaker” and a publicity "guru" by Maclean’s Magazine.
Bill Vigars today

As fate would have it, Bill somehow stumbled into acting early in his career, among a number of other notable achievements in a remarkable span of 40 years, and counting.

His first thespian venture was on the 1980's CBS late night series "Night Heat", where he acted in more than 25 episodes as, oddly enough but not too surprisingly, either a drag queen or wino. He also worked with a wide range of talent from the Bowery Boys' Huntz Hall, to Diane Lane, Phyllis Diller, Buster Rhymes and Donald Sutherland.

But I am getting ahead of myself just a bit at the risk of not doing justice to the best part of The Bill Vickers Story -- his remarkable, abbreviated, behind-the-scene involvement with the iconic Terry Fox and the historic Marathon of Hope for Cancer in the summer of 1980, all of which was later chronicled in two movies "The Terry Fox Story (1982) where Bill was portrayed by Hollywood's Robert Duvall and the 2005 CTV version "Terry", where his character was portrayed by Canadian actor Matt Gordon.

In 1980 it seems, Bill landed the job as Director of Public Relations and Fundraising for the Canadian Cancer Society's Ontario Division. He explained in an interview his fateful brush with history this way: "I had only been with the Cancer Society for three months, when I received a note around mid April, from my boss about Terry's quest. At that point I began following him through the news at the beginning of his Run. My first interaction with Terry came when he called from a payphone in Nova Scotia. He was a little down, as things weren't going as planned and I wanted to boost his spirits. I asked him how I could help him in Ontario and he mentioned events that might involve the CN Tower, the Toronto Blue Jays and his hockey heroes Darryl Sittler and Bobby Orr."
It was in Edmundston, NB, that Bill first met Terry. With approval of the Cancer Society, he left his work behind in Toronto and drove east to meet Terry, his brother Darryl and best friend Doug Alward. "After sleeping for awhile in the back of my car, I rolled out of the vehicle at 4:00 a.m. to be greeted by Darrel Fox who inquisitively asked, 'You're the guy from the Cancer Society?'" Bill recalled.

The next four days Bill spent in the van, trying to get routes down pat and organizing an itinerary for the trip through Ontario, even arranging meetings with Terry's favorite hockey players, the aforementioned Orr and Sittler, and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. He never left Terry's side for the duration of the marathon and became a close friend and confidante. He said that Terry struck him as a regular guy who was incredibly determined, focused and who saw the run as an athletic feat. "Terry moved people as he spoke from the heart and had an incredible intensity of purpose. He also really enjoyed the company of children, a good debate and had a great dry sense of humor."

One thing that impacted Bill along the tour, was how emotional it was. "We heard stories all along the route from people who had lost friends and family to cancer. You could see the emotion in their eyes as they gave support to Terry. It was tough".

Throughout the Run, an interesting trend was noted. Dollars that were collected in hats, garbage bags or anything else, were often crumpled. "What was happening," Bill explained, "is that people waited along the routes, sometimes for a few hours and there was so much emotion in anticipation of seeing Terry, that they ended up clutching their donations in their hands until he arrived."  By contrast, today the Terry Fox Foundation has raised more than $700 million for cancer research, thanks in large measure to volunteers and organizers of the 9,000 runs across Canada each year, 

Bill remembers the heat of that summer — thick, wet, insufferable heat that would glue a shirt to your back in minutes. He remembers the crowds, too. Everywhere they went, folks waving and grinning from the sidewalks, kids standing on tiptoes to catch a glimpse of the man skip-hop running down the highway.

But by far the most vivid memory Bill has of that celebrated journey is the July afternoon at a motel on Highway 7, when Terry Fox threw a clubhouse sandwich and fries at his head.

This was a little more than halfway through the now-legendary marathon that began in St John’s, Nfld., on April 12, when Fox dipped his artificial leg into the Atlantic Ocean and headed west. He crossed into Ontario at the end of June.

Battling bone bruises, blisters, shin splints, cysts on his stump and extreme exhaustion, Fox ran a staggering 42 kilometres — pretty much a marathon — every day. He would do 20 km before breakfast, another 12 after a mid-morning break and the final 10 after a noon nap.In the evening, he would do brief public appearances, have dinner and go straight to bed.

The sandwich-throwing incident took place at a motel somewhere along Highway 7 in late July. Bill can’t remember the name of the place. He recently tried to find it by navigating the street view on Google Maps, but said he kept getting lost in all the new subdivisions that have since been developed.

Coincidentally, I stood curbside in a crowd on Queen Street East (Hwy. 7) in Brampton that same day in July as Terry and his entourage passed through. I vividly remember the feeling that I was witnessing history in the making as Terry hippidy-hopped three feet in front of me with a sense of purpose. He had a lopsided gait, dubbed the Fox Trot — two hops with his good leg to match the longer stride of his artificial leg. He was expressionless, as if in a trance, his eyes focused on the road ahead. I instantly detected a haunting aura about him that defies description to this day. As Terry disappeared into the distance with the red lights of his police escort flashing behind him, I just stood there for a few minutes processing what I had just experienced. I later purchased a Marathon of Hope T-shirt as a souvenir of the occasion.

The Highway 7 that Bill remembers was just a simple two-lane road with gravel shoulders in those days. Fox would run along the edge of the pavement with a police cruiser trailing behind him. His friend Doug and brother, Darrell, travelled ahead in a van. Fox’s trick to keep himself going was to run to the next telephone pole, then the next one, and the next one, a short stretch at a time.

After passing through Brampton, the crew had stopped for a break along Highway 7 near Keele St. in Woodbridge, just east of the city. Fox went to take his daily nap break in a small nearby motel. Meantime, Bill apparently popped into a restaurant to grab him a sandwich.

While he was waiting for the order, Bill got word of a problem. There had been a mix-up with the schedule and Fox was somehow committed to making two public appearances that night in two different places.

The dilemma meant the crew would either have to cancel one appearance and disappoint the crowds that showed up to catch a glimpse of the famous runner or ask the exhausted 21-year-old to do both events. The latter was a lot to ask of a man who was experiencing intense physical pain and in a constant state of exhaustion. The very same booking mistake — two events in one night — had been made 10 days earlier, too, and organizers had promised Fox it wouldn’t happen again.

In those days, without cellphones or Internet, there was no simple way to cancel or reschedule an event. Poor Bill ran outside to a pay phone, called head office in Toronto and explained the situation.

"You have to make him do both," Bill was told by a superior..."Or you're fired!"

Slightly agitated, he grabbed the sandwich wrapped in a tinfoil takeout package and walked back across the parking lot to the motel. He went into Fox’s room and sat on the bed across from him as he was waking up. Then he handed Fox his lunch and explained the situation.

“Terry, if you don’t go, I’m going to get fired,” Bill exclaimed

A pause...and Bill ducked as the takeout container sailed past his shoulder, flinging fries and toasted bread and bacon all over the room.

Forced to end his run after cancer spread to his lungs, 
Terry Fox prepares to board a flight from Thunder Bay,
to his home in British Columbia on September 2, 1980. 
Nearby, Terry's parents are embraced by Bill Vigars of
the Canadian Cancer Society.
Bill doesn’t want people to get the wrong impression from this story, however. “That wasn’t the usual Terry,” he says. “It was a combination of the heat and the stress.”  Fox did the two events, in the end. He made peace with Bill a few days later and the tour continued. At the time, neither could have predicted their journey would end abruptly in September when Fox’s cancer returned; that he would never finish the Marathon of Hope.

But on he went for the rest of that summer, running along the old Ontario highways, taking it one telephone pole at a time. When it was found in Thunder Bay, that Terry's cancer had returned, Bill was devastated. "I didn't see it coming and I was lost for weeks." *Take a few minutes to view the videos below for more first-person remembrances from Bill himself.

Reluctantly, Terry was forced to abandon his run after 143 days and 5,373 kilometers (3,339 mi). He refused offers to complete the run in his stead, stating that he wanted to finish his marathon himself, all the while promising to be back when he recovered.  He passed away on June 28, 1981 at 22 years of age.  There is not apt to be another like him in this lifetime!

Today, the 70 year old Bill Vigars resides in Vancouver, BC where he operates an extremely successful public relations business. He has also been CEO of major business associations, Director of Communications for two of Canada’s largest hospitals, Director of Communications for the Ontario Pavilion at EXPO 86, Director of Communications and Corporate Sponsorships for the Ontario Lottery Corporation and Director of Communications for the British Columbia Ministry of Small Business, Tourism, and Culture. Most recently, he played a key role in building the David Foster Foundation into a respected national charity.

In the entertainment industry, his clients have included many of North America’s most successful companies such as MGM, Lions Gate Films, and Alliance Entertainment. He has handled publicity for numerous hit TV shows and feature films.

As I say: "I knew Bill Vigars when..."

...and my brief glimpse of Terry Fox remains indelibly etched in my mind.



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