Most mornings in Campbell River, you will see 76-year-old Doug Vater journey along the city’s Seawalk.
People will often stop and speak with him on those sometimes dull and dreary because his t-shirt catches their eye.
Emblazoned on it is Terry Fox, the champion of cancer research who famously attempted to run coast to coast across Canada in 1980 to raise money for the cause.
For Vater, Fox was not just a national hero, he was a man of incredible humility, and for that crucial period, a companion in his Marathon of Hope.
“When he stopped his run, we’d bring in literally garbage bags of mail into the Fox home,” said Vater. “The letter opener we got was an industrial sized one. I opened one letter, and it said ‘To Terry Fox only’. It was a cheque for $2,500. I handed it to Terry. He looked at it and said ‘send it back. It only goes to cancer research.’”
Vater first crossed paths with the Fox family in 1980, when he was the vice-president of the Port Coquitlam-Port Moody Chamber of Commerce (now the Tri-Cities Chamber of Commerce). Fox won the organization’s athlete of the year award in 1980. A few months later, Fox began his historic run with a goal of $1 dollar for every Canadian at the time going toward cancer research.
Vater was in his car, heading to meetings in Vancouver when he heard about Fox’s mission.
“I thought, I had to get involved in some way,” said Vater.
Get involved Vater did. Inspired by a trip back to his native Newfoundland, he returned to Port Coquitlam with a simple mission: for Port Coquitlam to know Terry’s objective, and to let Fox know that his hometown was behind him as well.
“When I went back east, to see the excitement that was happening there,” said Vater. “There was no excitement around Port Coquitlam. We’d hear news, but the excitement in the east was phenomenal.”
Approaching the Cancer Society, Vater didn’t think about donations and fundraising. But, thrust into the position, Vater set a goal with city council and the Cancer Society of $100,000.
“Volunteers came from everywhere,” said Vater. “The city got involved, businesses from around got involved. There was no Facebook back then.”
The second goal Vater had stemming from his philanthropic efforts was that he wanted to join Terry on his trek. He managed to meet up with the “Marathon of Hope” entourage just east of Terrace Bay,Ont., just one week before Fox had to stop his run in Thunder Bay. The bone cancer had spread to his lungs.
Fox’s goal of $1 for each Canadian had been raised by Feb. 1981. Fox passed away that June.
“You could tell that something was wrong,” said Vater about that final week. “He was tense.”
Forty-three years later, Vater says that he feels Fox would be in awe of the global phenomenon the Terry Fox Run has become.
“I don’t think Terry even knew what he started,” said Vater. “That just speaks to how humble he was.”