By Ian Harvey Principal Curator
For the past year I’ve been writing a book about a magic time in Canada which still resonates 43 years later and it’s going to be published in late August.
Terry & Me: The Inside Story of Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope is not my story, but I am proud to have helped bring it to life using all the skills developed as a journalist over the past 46 years.
It is the story as told by Bill Vigars who was the Canadian Cancer Society rep assigned to Terry early on, before it all blew up as the story of the century. The book will be out in time for the annual Terry Fox runs across Canada and around the world and you can pre order here if you’re reading this before it actually hits the shelves.
Now, this is not just another book about Terry Fox. We take the reader into the famous Ford Econoline van, travel with Terry through the roller coaster of the Marathon of Hope.
This book actually stinks. Yes. Stinks. Bill takes you inside the van which smells rancid as only three young men living in it 24/7 could make it, before they discovered the onboard toilet came with deodorizing pucks. Duh.
More importantly, Bill’s narrative of that summer humanizes Terry in a way no one else has. There are moments of tears followed quickly by laughs. It’s about as real as it gets.
And Bill was there and has waited this long to tell his story and karma played a massive role in intersecting his life with Terry and still does today.
As Bill notes: “Everything I did in life before meeting Terry prepared me for Terry and everything I’ve done since is because of Terry.”
I’d met Bill around 1987 when he was the publicist on the successful television detective series Night Heat. I was a reporter at the Toronto Sun and I’d been put in charge of raising baseball gear for poor kids in the Dominican Republic. The connection was that the Toronto Blue Jays were a winning franchise with many players from the DR where street kids were so poor they played with a ball of twine and milk cartons for gloves. Bill called me because one of the regular actors, Sean McCann who played a hard boiled desk sergeant on the show, was an avid baseball fan and organized games with the crew between takes.
They set up a collection box and raised some equipment for the cause and I went down to get a picture of the gear and grab a picture for the paper.
From there, we just hit it off. Next I was invited to appear in their once a season media night in which local media folks would be background actors. I even got a close up.
Then I went to the wrap party. Long after Night Heat went into syndication I was still hanging out with Bill. He was quirky and eclectic and fun.
Over the years we hung out here and in British Columbia where he now lives. We have many friends in common and we’ve always stayed in touch. Everyone of those meetings ends with us and whomever is with us, holding our sides laughing over Bill’s adventures.
Bill is, and always was, a story teller. As a publicist he excelled in getting his clients’ stories told in various media and as a person, if you read the book, you’ll learn how deep and diverse his life has been.
Back to the Terry Fox Marathon of Hope, which, as you’ll read, was a karmic moment where the universe aligned perfectly for both Terry and Bill.
Born in 1946, just after World War 2, he was raised second generation Irish in a small Southern Ontario town. He was the class clown and always in trouble from Grade 3 onward.
“I stuck a bunch of those white Os reinforcements for three ring binders on my face covering it,” he recalls. As punishment, the principal set him to every class to be humiliated. It didn’t work.
“I brought the house down which set me up for a career in stand up.”
As Altar Boy and he did a back door business in communion wine figuring if it wasn’t blessed yet it was up for grabs.
Bill was game for everything. Including letting his older brother pay him to wear an old heavy winter coat and then shoot him from behind with a pellet gun.
“Every once in a while he’d get my neck or leg and he’d say it was an accident and pay me an extra dime. I found out years later he did it on purpose because the game was getting boring.”
At 12 he was arrested and sent to a psychologist because he got wrapped up fighting Nazis in an imaginary adventure and nearly burned the school down. He was diagnosed as sane but with an over active imagination. Bill says he was inspired by Audie Murphy, a war hero and later action actor of some renown and, pint sized, just like him.
Bill wasn’t a star pupil. He failed Grade 9 for cutting classes and was kicked out of Grade 10 for accidently hitting a nun with a rubber knob intended for his buddy.
He was 21 before he actually graduated high school and by that time had been working part-time at the local radio station as a news stringer. He covered council in St. Thomas and decided he could do a better job, ran and got elected, the youngest ever at that time and to prove it wasn’t a fluke, won a second term.
Married at 22-years-old, then separated after losing a baby in pregnancy he went on to be manager of the Welland Chamber of Commerce where he successfully specialized in downtown revitalization.
His employment history was a revolving door but the trajectory was always upward with the exception of a Radio Shack franchise which went bankrupt in 18 months. Still, he made the most of having no customers by grabbing a microphone and doing stand up comedy in the store for any mall shoppers passing by.
This led to a shot at Yuk Yuks Comedy Club.
They say comedy is pain and Bill certainly knew pain at that point in his life. He’d lost everything, his life saving, his marriage, his house and was struggling to support his two kids. He was in a dark hole but he picked up and carried on, selling life insurance, a job he hated.
There were many highs and lows. A long time volunteer for the local Canadian Cancer Society he was offered full time job, a lifeline from his despair only to have it rescinded a day or so later when they found out about nearly burning down the school.
Then came the offer from the national office of the Canadian Cancer Society in Toronto and everything would change, as you’ll learn.
In the 30-odd years I’ve known Bill Vigars I have always been astounded how often I can be shocked by a new revelation of his life story. As a journalist with some 40 years experience, having ghost written three books, I and many of his friends and family have urged him for years to write a book and share it with Canada and the world.
He was, as they say, a witness to history. Many of his stories are ones you won’t read
elsewhere. They’re funny and they’re often sad. But they are authentic and a deeper glimpse into the fateful summer of the Marathon of Hope which changed Canada forever.
Canada discover a new hero and Terry put a face on cancer while bringing the entire nation’s focus onto funding research for a cure, $1 billion and counting.
I am honoured that Bill, albeit after five years of me nagging him, agreed to let me help string the words together and tell this part of his story.