The definition of a hero

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When I began Grade 4, Neil Armstrong (and Buzz Aldrin) had just landed on the moon. I remember the excitement of that summer and I remember that the world had seemed changed. We had a new direction, new possibilities. Our teacher talked with us on those first few days of the school year about the significance of the event. She explained that by the time we were adults, people would be able to take vacations on the moon. This seemed extraordinary to me, whose summer vacations to that point had been spent on Prince Edward Island.

I’m not sure what happened to our new world, that it is not routine, 40 years later, to take vacations on the moon, but in learning of Neil Armstrong’s passing, I did recall those early back-to-school days of 1969. It certainly helped as well that my classmates from that elementary school are now planning our first school reunion. The organizers have asked us to submit school memories. I think this will be mine. On the day of Mr. Armstrong’s passing, the media and U.S. President Barack Obama referred to him as a hero. Later that day, I read a media headline, which referred to Michael Phelps as a hero.

“Hero” is a word I, and millions of Canadians, have reserved for many years for Terry Fox. I am reluctant, personally, to use this special word for Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Phelps (whose many medal wins I watched on TV, even setting my alarm clock for 3 a.m. during the Beijing Olympics). These latter two men are amazing men, have accomplished amazing feats and will be remembered in American history for many years, but I feel Terry’s heroism is in a class of its own.

The Canadian Oxford dictionary lists “hero” as: “a person distinguished by courage, noble deeds, outstanding achievements, etc., a man of superhuman strength, courage or qualities favoured by the gods.” Terry Fox became a national hero.

Our provincial Grade 7 English curriculum includes a chapter on heroes and students are often asked to research and write about a hero. This always includes essays and stories of Terry Fox. I often speak to Grade 7 classes about Terry and offer insights into him, through the letters he wrote me the year before the Marathon of Hope.

In those letters, Terry describes himself as a self-centred person, an athlete focused solely on his sports and on winning, what we might consider a “jock.” Cancer changed all of that. The diagnosis shocked Terry. It came at a time when the common way to refer to the disease was “the big C.” It was such a frightening disease that people found it hard to pronounce those two syllables.

But if Terry was shocked by his own diagnosis, he was transformatively shocked by what he then witnessed in hospital. Sick and ailing children, in particular, moved Terry to give up his own dream of completely his degree in kinesiology, his dream to be a varsity champion and possibly his dream to be a professional basketball player, all to take on a new dream. A dream for others. A dream that would ensure others’ lives were filled with hope and were improved and saved. A dream where “somewhere the hurting must stop” — Terry Fox, November 1979.  “Along the way I hope that I can give inspiration, encouragement and courage to other people, not only to healthy ones, but also disabled and those with diseases such as cancer.” — Terry Fox, May, 1979.

Terry brought his dream to life and eventually, he gave his life for it. We are all better for the inspiration, encouragement and courage he gave us. Now that’s a hero! This year’s Terry Fox run takes place on Sept. 16. More than 40 communities across our province will host the event. Come out to one in your area.


Donna L. Ball writes from Paradise.

Organizations: Beijing Olympics, Canadian Oxford

Geographic location: U.S.

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Recent comments

  • Herb Morrison
    September 12, 2012 - 14:35

    Ron, shame on you. Your statement that I rushed to judgement is, art best presumptuous. The fact that you would presume, without any documentation, that I rushed to judgement indicates that you are under the illusion that you can read minds. This, in turn might just give any thinking person reason to question the credability of this particular post which you have chosen to make. The only one sitting in the judgement seat here is yourself. Me, I am simply expressing my personal opinion, for what its' worth.

  • Ron Tizzard
    September 12, 2012 - 10:39

    Herb, I find your response to Donna Ball's article in toay's Telegram i.e. 'The Definition of Hero', to be both unfairly, cynically and vacantly dismissive. That has not been your style. And, in your questionable rush to judgement, you flirted with the abuse of minutiae. I would suggest that events involving heroism associated with loss or potential loss of life ARE NOT commonly associated with the VERBAL aesthetics of 'beauty'. Your response left me with a feeling of cognically toying with a Gordian Knot. (that said...good to see your feisty responses again).

  • Herb Morriosn
    September 10, 2012 - 12:28

    Heroism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.