He was 46 when he lost a child.
And for the next 35 years, Rolly Fox dedicated his life to preserving the dreams of his late son, the Canadian hero from Port Coquitlam who started an epic journey to build awareness and raise money for cancer research.
On late Tuesday afternoon, with the music of Hank Williams filling his room, Rolland Murray Fox died of lung cancer, with which he was diagnosed in January.
His and the Fox family's legacy is well known in PoCo and across Canada, and it began when Rolly met Betty Lou Wark at Winnipeg's premier intersection of Portage and Main when he was a switchman for the Canadian National Railway.
They fell in love, married in October of 1956 and, the following year, had Fred. Next was Terry in 1958 and, three years on, Darrell. Betty wanted a daughter, Rolly recalled in an interview with The Tri-City News in 2011, and so they tried for a girl. Judith arrived in 1965.
The next year, wanting to raise his growing family in a warmer climate, Rolly transferred to B.C., working in the Vancouver and Surrey rail yards. He rented a house in Surrey and Betty and the kids travelled west by train a month later.
They later heard about homes being built in Port Coquitlam, buying one at 3337 Morrill St. and "had a normal family life," Rolly recalled in the interview.
All was good until March 1977, when Terry was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma; part of his right leg was removed.
Rolly's co-workers at CN Rail rallied and bought Terry a wheelchair, which he used to play wheelchair basketball with his new friend Rick Hansen.
Pleased with his athletic prowess, Terry started to run on his prosthetic leg. In 1979, he competed in a marathon in Prince George and, the next year, set off to St. John's, N.L., with his best friend Doug Alward, for the cross-country Marathon of Hope, wanting to draw attention to cancer victims — especially children like those he met on the cancer ward while in hospital.
From their PoCo home, Rolly and Betty watched in disbelief as their son appeared on TV and conducted radio interviews; they talked with him by phone regularly, often inquiring about his health.
In a surprise visit paid by the Toronto Star, the couple caught up with Terry in Whitby, Ont. The Star photographer captured the happy reunion, an image the family had printed on Betty's funeral program in 2011.
After Terry stopped his run — cancer had spread to his lungs and he returned to PoCo — the media glare didn't fade.
The Foxes opened their home to welcome VIPs such as hockey greats Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr. By spring 1981, the Foxes had more mail delivered to their home each day than all of PoCo combined.
The letters continued well after Terry's death, on June 28, 1981, and Rolly personally answered more than 14,000 letters to thank the writers for remembering his son and to talk about the tragedy cancer can bring.
Over the years, Rolly and Betty travelled extensively to spread Terry's message and pay forward his hope to countless schools and groups.
There were so many honours coast to coast: Dedications of schools, statues, a mountain and a Coast Guard icebreaker; a loonie bearing Terry's image; a bench at Stanley Park, where the Marathon of Hope was supposed to have ended; plaque unveilings; and, last year, the opening of a national museum exhibition.
There were also annual appearances at Terry Fox runs, in Canada and around the world, including in their hometown of PoCo.
"Rolly was fairly quiet when he came to the runs but had a wicked sense of humour. He always had time to speak with the runners and especially the kids,” Hometown Run organizer Dave Teixeira said.
After Betty died, Rolly's love for his "best friend" never wavered.
From his Fraser Valley home, he would drive to PoCo nearly every week to lay flowers at her and Terry's graves. Later, he would check in on Donna White, her staff (including Rolly's granddaughters, Jessie and Kirsten) and the volunteers at the Terry Fox Foundation provincial office on Shaughnessy Street.
As always, he brought jokes and a big smile.
"Whenever I come here to PoCo, I feel like I'm coming home," he told The Tri-City News in 2013, a few weeks before the 33rd anniversary of the Terry Fox Run.
Still, it was during that interview that Rolly, then 78, talked about a new chapter in his life.
He had married Janet, a family friend who had lost her husband around the same time Rolly lost Betty. They grieved together and soon found companionship. Rolly was frank about how his children took the news of their nuptials. "They said it was too soon," he said, ”but the four of us were friends and we thought our late spouses would appreciate us moving on."
He then added, "Everything is good in my life. My family is good. My health is good. I really can't ask for anything more."
Rolly Fox leaves behind three children and nine grandchildren: Terrance, Kirsten, Erin, Jessica, Sarah, D.J., Tianna, Alexandra and Connor.
• Port Coquitlam city hall lowered its flags to half-mast — and bathed the civic building in the Terry Fox Foundation colours of red and white — in tribute to Rolly Fox this week. As of Thursday, details of his funeral had not been disclosed.
WORDS ABOUT ROLLY
• The Terry Fox Foundation: "Our Dad and Grandpa is no longer telling jokes. Rolland Murray Fox died late afternoon on March 8th while listening to a little Hank Williams. He fulfilled his promise to Terry facing cancer with courage, grace and plenty of humour. He thanked everyone, every time as they left the room after caring for him and each and every family member and friend after a visit. Our promise to Dad is to try our very best to focus on the many memories of laughter he gifted us the last few weeks and throughout our lives. His room was always overflowing with family, love, laughter, song and story - does life offer anything better? We have witnessed once again the pain cancer causes but we know, oh how we know, that we are not alone. We have seen first hand the opportunities to extend life because of our nation’s collective belief and investment in cancer research, yet have been forced to accept that they were not available to Dad/Grandpa. We now have your journey, together with Terry's, to offer us inspiration and hope from this day forward, forever more."
• Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore: "It is with great sadness that the city of Port Coquitlam receives news this evening of the passing of our friend Rolly Fox. Our prayers and thoughts go out to the Fox family. The memories we will hold dear of Rolly will be of his charm, his sense of humour and is unwavering support for the Terry Fox Foundation."
• Port Coquitlam Hometown Run co-ordinator Dave Teixeira: "I am very sad to learn of Rolly's passing today. Along with Betty, they attended the Terry Fox Hometown Run a dozen times in the last 15 years. Their stories about Terry and how they created the Terry Fox Foundation to continue the Marathon of Hope to find a cure for cancer was inspiring. Rolly was fairly quiet when he came to the runs but had a wicked sense of humour. He always had time to speak with the runners and especially the kids. Rolly and the entire Fox family are Canadian heroes and a lasting inspiration. This year's Training Run in April and Terry Fox Runs in September will be bittersweet. We will be sad that Rolly will not be here but we will also celebrate all that he did for the Marathon of Hope.”
• Premier Christy Clark: “B.C., Canada and the world have lost a dedicated, resolute pillar in the fight against cancer in Rolly Fox. He made the hero's dream to beat cancer stronger and closer — not just for him but the millions of people inspired by him and the Fox family, and the thousands of families forever changed by life-saving cancer research. And while the entire province mourns his loss, tonight my thoughts and prayers are with Rolly's friends and family."
• Rick Hansen, the Man in Motion: “Rolly Fox was an incredible human being who made an immense contribution through his work continuing his son’s legacy at the Terry Fox Foundation. He was genuine, caring and compassionate, always bringing strength and humour to whatever life threw at him. I was able to talk to Rolly on the phone after his diagnosis and was inspired by his courageous and positive attitude. He will be greatly missed. I am sending my deepest condolences to his family and friends.”
• Britt Andersen, executive director of the Terry Fox Foundation: "Rolly’s unwavering commitment to fulfilling Terry’s dream of a world without cancer has been an inspiration to us all. His down-to-earth attitude and good humour will be missed and long remembered."