My friend Terry

Local woman treasures correspondence she had with young Canadian icon

Susan Flanagan
Published on September 10, 2013
Declan Flanagan and Flat Stanley visit the Terry Fox statue on the east end of Water Street. At Terry’s feet lie two bottles of water: one from the Pacific Ocean and one from the Atlantic presented by a visitor. When Terry Fox dipped his foot into St. John’s harbour on April 12, 1980, he also scooped up two bottles of water, one of which he planned to keep, the other he planned to pour into the Pacific when he finished his run. — Photo by Susan Flanagan/Special to The Telegram

“I’m running on one leg. It may not look like I’m running fast, but I’m going as hard as I can. It bothers me, people coming up beside me. I want to make those guys work. I can’t stand making it easy for them. I’m really competitive. When they run with me, they’re usually running for only two or three miles; for me it might be my 26th mile.”

— Terry Fox


Thirty-five years ago this summer, St. John’s hosted the 1978 Canadian Games for the Physically Disabled from Aug. 20–27. Local athletes like Mel Fitzgerald, who took home five gold and two silver medals in wheelchair competition, were challenged by more than 350 athletes from the 10 provinces and at least one territory.

Ann Farrell of Bishops Falls set four world records and came away with five gold medals in track and field (amputee class). Conor McGuire captured silver in the 25-metre backstroke, only one year after a diving accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Bob Gibb, an amputee, took home gold in the 400 metre sprint and Joanne MacDonald, a wheelchair sprinter, took home gold in the

60 m and 400 m.

“I have fabulous memories from these games,” says MacDonald. “It was one of the first times my mother had an opportunity to see me compete at a national competition, which made the games much more memorable for me. There was tremendous support … great public attendance, of course cheering for all, but especially Newfoundland athletes.  The games were so well organized and run that it set the bar very high for future competitions.”

More than 2,000 people attended the opening ceremony held on the now-paved Canada Games track. Jean Beliveau of the Montreal Canadiens was quest speaker.  

The games also had a fantastic venue with the Aquarena and Canada Games Park having only opened the previous year. Athletes were housed in MUN residence.

Donna Ball (nee Green), who had her first summer job with the Disabled Games, reminded me of all this and the fact that last month marked not only the 35th anniversary of the games, but also the 35th anniversary of the first time Terry Fox visited Newfoundland.

At the time, Terry was relatively new to amputee sports. But if you’ve read anything about Terry Fox, then you know about his competitive spirit and it will not come as a surprise that only two years after losing his right leg to cancer, his dedication to training and his ability to think beyond the pain brought him to the point where he was competing for his province in wheelchair basketball.

Donna Ball also believes it was as a result of the positive atmosphere at the 1978 Disabled Games that Terry Fox, the cancer survivor and amputee athlete, chose St. John’s to be the start of his Marathon of Hope.

He could have chosen to run west to east and dip his foot into Victoria Harbour, but on April 12, 1980, Terry Fox dipped his foot into the water on the east end of Water Street — very close to where his statue stands today in the Port Authority yard.

“I think Terry chose to start his run in

St. John’s because he had such a good time when he came to MUN with the BC team to compete in wheelchair basketball,” says Ball, who registered Terry for the games. Terry, who was always fiercely competitive, must have been pleased with the games, as the B.C. basketball team went home with gold.

Following the games, Ball went on to correspond with Terry. Ball has allowed me to share parts of these letters before, but I have not included the following letter which was written a year after the games, when Terry was a student at Simon Fraser University. The letter does not specifically mention running across the country and maybe the seed had yet to be planted. But on May 8, 1979, Terry Fox knew he wanted to raise money for cancer research so he could help alleviate the suffering he had witnessed in hospitals.


Dear Donna,

My last three months have been just fantastic. This summer I am taking 10 credits at SFU. Although I have a grade point average of 3.21 my interest in schooling has been tailing off lately. … Probably the main reason my drive is lowering is that my athletic drives are heightening. I will not take more than ten credits per semester again, until I have reached my athletic goals. The further I run the greater my drive has been getting. Right now I am running five miles a day and I hope to be at ten miles per day at the end of the summer. I run seven days in a nine day week. I also weight lift every day and push my wheelchair up a mountain every second day.


If any of you are familiar with Burnaby Mountain outside Vancouver, you’ll only just begin to comprehend this accomplishment. When we lived out there, our new Montana van had trouble making it up Burnaby Mountain.


 It may take me a few years till I reach the point when I think I have the ability to help disabled athletes and cancer research financially by being fit enough to run and inspire others to give. Along the way I hope I can give inspiration, encouragement and courage to other people not only the healthy ones but also disabled and those with diseases such as cancer.

Hoping to hear from you soon.



Now keep in mind, dear readers, that the boy writing these words is a 20-year-old who found out he had cancer at the age of 18 and had his right leg amputated immediately after hearing the news. This is a boy who — at the age of 19, only one year after amputation —  was already competing in wheelchair basketball. And then, as these words illustrate, by 20 he was planning on running to raise cancer awareness and money for research.

At 21, only three years after his diagnosis and amputation, he ran across a country — not the whole way, of course, but he would have had the cancer not returned and taken his life.

I don’t know about you, but I know teenagers who complain if you ask them to walk the length of themselves. Terry Fox did not complain often. At least, not about the fact that cancer had taken away his leg — a major blow to someone who lived for sports.

When Terry Fox entered his first post-amputation long distance running race — a 17-miler called Prince George to Boston — he finished dead last and didn’t complained. In fact, he was elated — said he was never prouder of any athletic accomplishment. You know why? Because he was only ten minutes behind the last two-legged runner.

That’s positive spirit.

“Nobody is ever going to call me a quitter,” he said.


Never been done

Terry Fox embraced his legless existence.

Once he realized he could do it, he planned out his arduous schedule of running which led to 143 straight days of running a marathon. It had never been done and has never been done since. Even by a two-legged runner.

It’s true that Terry sometimes seemed well beyond his years. In his letters to Donna, he talks about regular teenage boy/early 20-year-old things like all his money getting sucked into the gas tank of his car or worrying about not finding work in the field of kinesiology. But he also talks about how he felt he used to be a selfish person and how the children he encountered while undergoing chemotherapy made him more giving.

“The first 20 years of my life I have been very self-oriented. I had no concerns for anybody but my own well-being. It took cancer and helpful loving people as yourself to realize that being self-centred is not the way to live. The answer is to try and help others,” Terry wrote. “My problem was that I didn’t know how to go about doing it, or how to get started.  I think now I am slowly finding the answer.”

Remember that Terry handwrote these letters and sent them snail mail. This is not instant text messaging. Donna would write a letter and a few weeks later, Terry’s loopy handwriting would show up in her mailbox.

In the May 8, 1979 letter, Terry invites Donna to stay with his family if she makes it out west. He explains he lives with his parents and younger brother (Darrell) and sister (Judy). His elder brother (Fred) has already moved out. He promises to show her the city.

As it turned out, Donna never made it to B.C. while Terry was alive. But Terry made it back to St. John’s and Donna met him and Doug Alward as they were packing their van at the Holiday Inn. She also saw him off when he started his Marathon of Hope and followed his progress across the country.

Donna remembers their conversation the night before the Marathon of Hope began.

“Terry described the impact that his cancer had on him, but more passionately described the impact other people’s cancer and suffering had on him, particularly children with cancer.  He knew he had to do something to end the hurting.

“Terry was an ordinary guy and wanted to show that ordinary people can do extraordinary things,” says Ball. “I feel honoured and blessed to have letters and a friendship with him.”

That friendship wouldn’t have blossomed if not for the 1978 Games for the Physically Disabled.

Personally, I’m thrilled he chose St. John’s as his starting point. Next Sunday, Sept. 15, when I head to Quidi Vidi Lake for the annual Terry Fox Run, I, like many Canadians, will remember Terry Fox, a hero; but Donna Ball will remember Terry Fox, her friend.

The St. John’s Terry Fox Run begins at

11 a.m. at King George V Soccer Field (registration at 10, parking available in the Dominion lot, please walk around fence to bridge to access soccer field).

Paradise is holding its first ever Terry Fox Run on Sunday at 2 p.m. around Octagon Pond, with registration at 1 p.m. at the Rotary Paradise Youth Cente on McNamara Drive. If you’re outside the city, there are over 40 other run sites throughout the province. Go to to find out about a run in your area. And remember you can walk or roll around the lake; you don’t have to run. Bring your spare change. Eight-four cents of every dollar raised goes directly to cancer research.


Susan can be reached at


Bay Roberts Heritage Trail

Lois Dawe, Tourism Officer for the Town of Bay Roberts writes:  “I am sure you are aware of the heritage walking trail located in the east end of Bay Roberts. The history of our town originated there with the two early communities of Juggler’s Cove and French’s Cove. This is now a protected area and shows the remains of rock walls, root cellars, wells and foundations of the houses that existed there. Our tourism department started interpretive walks there last summer. One of these, ‘Toutons and Tunes,’ continues at 2 p.m. on Sundays until Oct. 27. I would like … you to join us for a walk through time and experience fresh toutons and traditional music in our Fisherman’s Red Shed.”

For more info, contact Lois at or 709-683-6377.