The name “Terry Fox” is synonymous with the words ‘hope’ and ‘inspiration’. For Isadore Sharp, the founder of the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Terry Fox was the inspiration behind his building something even bigger than his chain of hotels – one of the world’s most successful charity organizations over the past 35 years.
Everyone in Canada knows of Terry Fox at least in the vague sense. Virtually every Canadian today can still envision the young, curly haired hero with an artificial right leg, running along eastern highways from St. John’s, Newfoundland towards his home province of BC, with the hope of raising $1 per Canadian along the way to fund cancer research.
Even with the recent popularization of recreational 42km marathons and 21km half marathons, the concept of running a marathon a day for 143 straight days seems impossible. Terry Fox ran 5,373 kilometres in 143 days (an average of 37.5km per day). “What he did, doctors and scientists say is impossible,” Mr. Sharp recalls. “For someone to do that every day on one leg with such determination – there are just some things in history that can’t be repeated.” Unforgettable is Terry’s heroic response after he had to stop in Thunder Bay due to cancer appearing in his lungs, as he stated, “Well, you know, I had primary cancer in my knee three and a half years ago, and now the cancer is in my lung and I have to go home and have some more x-rays or maybe an operation that will involve opening up my chest or more drugs. I’ll do everything I can. I’m gonna do my very best. I’ll fight. I promise I won’t give up.”
On June 28, 1981, Terry Fox would succumb to the disease, exactly one year after first running into the province of Ontario, where his Marathon of Hope ended in one way, but simultaneously began in a more significant way than he could have ever imagined.
Isadore Sharp first became aware of Terry Fox and his Marathon of Hope by reading about it in the newspaper. He instantly felt a connection to the young man, having tragically lost his own son to cancer two years prior. “My son Christopher had a type of melanoma, and was given a 2% chance of survival. Terry had been given the same odds,” explains Mr. Sharp. “It’s unnatural to lose a child. You’re supposed to see your parents die. You’ll never be the same person after losing a child.” While many families are incapable of dealing with this kind of tragedy and crumble as a result, Mr. Sharp considers himself lucky that he, his wife and remaining three children were able to bond and become even closer. When Terry Fox caught his eye, Mr. Sharp felt the instant desire to be more than a spectator.
“I think we’re fortunate that Terry was able to do this at a time that the world was truly interested,” Mr. Sharp proclaims. His first action was to place an ad in multiple newspapers and magazines, promising to pledge $10,000, and inviting 999 other Canadian corporations to do the same. When Terry heard about the ad, he called Mr. Sharp from a highway to thank him, and their friendship was born. Mr. Sharp let Terry know that he was welcome to rest at any Four Seasons he encountered along the way. “And Terry did in fact stay at the Four Seasons in Yorkville,” Mr. Sharp recalls with a smile.
As Terry came through Toronto, Mr. Sharp arranged a business luncheon, at which Terry would deliver a speech. What hap- pened that day still amazes Mr. Sharp. “I have never experienced such a silent room of people”, Mr. Sharp recalls. “Not one person even moved to pick up a glass of water while he was up there. He spoke straight from the heart with nothing prepared, and my biggest regret is that I didn’t think to film or record what would undoubtedly be one of the most sincere and incredible speeches I’ve ever encountered.”
After Terry was forced to stop in Thunder Bay, Mr. Sharp sent a telegram, expressing his wish to continue in Terry’s honour. “Terry and I spoke on the phone, and he said he didn’t want anyone finishing this race in his place. So I said ‘what if we organize a family run to raise money? In order to run, they bring a little money – it’s not a race, just a recreational run’. Terry said he liked that idea.” In September of 1981, about 3 months after Terry died, Mr. Sharp and his Four Seasons hotels organized the first Terry Fox Run. More than 300,000 people walked, ran or cycled in his memory and raised $3.5 million. It became an annual staple in Canada, and soon spread around the world. As many as 60 countries have hosted Terry Fox Runs, with proceeds benefiting their own cancer research initiatives.
The sad reality is that when it comes to charity organizations, there can be a natural skepticism as to how the money raised is spent. A Toronto Star article from 2011 audited a number of large Canadian charity organizations and revealed that the top 100 in Canada only donated 37 cents per dollar received to their actual charity. Mr. Sharp’s business savvy and integrity allowed him to build and grow the organization the right way. As a result, The Terry Fox Run provides an incredible 84 cents per dollar received to actual cancer research. “Our marketing costs are minimal, our salaries paid are minimal. The people here aren’t doing it for money,” Mr. Sharp says with a warm smile. “They do it because they want to participate and make a difference.” As a result of all their hard work, to date, the Terry Fox Run has raised an astonishing amount of almost $700 million Canadian, which has helped to fund over 1,200 research projects.
– Isadore Sharp
How did Mr. Sharp inspire and motivate the right people to grow the organization? “You have to have something people buy into. With business or philanthropy, you get people to participate in a more meaningful and effective way by earning their trust and respect. That’s when leadership can become more effective. Because then people are doing it not because you’re the boss, but because they believe in you. Then you have the power to influence others, which allows them to rise above themselves. They all play their role and leave nothing on the table. By influencing others, by earning their respect and trust, you are able to accomplish much more. Then it’s not about what ‘I’ can do, it’s what I can get others to do. That’s basic Leadership 101.” He continues, “It’s a matter of positive thinking. Throwing yourself completely into it. Failure is only the fear of trying. That’s what Terry was about. The respect people still have for him – he put himself forward first to do the impossible. If he can do what he did, we can at least try to do our best.”
The future of the Terry Fox run is in good hands, according to Mr. Sharp. “I no longer run it, but I’m an honorary member of the board. I am still involved, and I know the people we have in place believe in it. They’re personally committed and have been involved since the beginning. They will also leave it in good hands, and so on. I know the foundation is there for it to con- tinue on for a long time.” Thanks to the compassion and commitment of people like Isadore Sharp, the Marathon of Hope will continue to succeed, beyond even the wildest dreams of Terry Fox himself.
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