Joan Gibb 'I got the first hug. It was smelly, mind you'. She convinced Terry to change the route of his Run: Joan Gibb


Terry Fox running along LAkeshore Road in Burlington, July 13th, 1981

The Terry Fox Run for Cancer Research, an annual event in Burlington since 1981, won’t take place this year in its usual form. The physical distancing rules due to the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t permit large gatherings. And Terry Fox events are very large gatherings

This isn’t just in Burlington, but runs across the country. Volunteers from this outstanding community have worked hard for 39 years to grow the event to the point where it has raised $2.2 million for cancer research.

They were not prepared to just let the event dribble away – it was going to take more than a pandemic to close them down.

After the Foundation announced that the 40th Terry Fox Run would be a virtual event, the Burlington Terry Fox Run Committee decided to take a creative approach to informing the community and telling parts of the unknown story.

Profiles of the people who got the event to where it is today appear on the Terry Fox Lives in Burlington blog and are being republished by the Gazette with permission.

By Burlington Terry Fox Run Committee

July 11th, 2020,

Joan Gibb
While Joan’s story focuses on Oakville, Ontario, she was part of the bigger picture. Before there was a Terry Fox Foundation, Terry Fox was collecting donations through the Canadian Cancer Society, due to the fact that they represented all types of cancer. In 1980, the beginning of Terry’s run was rocky. Not everyone understood the magnitude of what this young man from British Columbia was trying to accomplish, and his donation numbers reflected that.

Gibbs front page Beaver

Joan Gibb with a front age from the Oakville Beaver and a photograph of Terry Fox in the background.

Terry’s original plan was to take the Transcanada highway the entire time – from Newfoundland to BC. This would have meant that his run through Ontario would have mainly been in the sparsely populated northern regions. Through my conversation with Joan Gibb, I learned that the Canadian Cancer Society knew that skipping Southern Ontario would be a missed opportunity to raise some serious dollars for the cause.

Joan, having been a longtime grassroots organizer with local Canadian Cancer Society offices (first in Montreal, and later in Oakville) and an employee with Bell Canada, was asked to join the national board. Her involvement with Terry began when she was one of only six national board members who stepped up to help out with the GTA grassroots volunteers should Terry make it to Ontario.

During our chat, Joan made sure she mentioned the name Harry Rowlands, Executive Director and Ontario Chair of the Canadian Cancer Society in relation to Terry’s Marathon of Hope, along with Barbara Kilbert. He was instrumental in getting Terry to change his mind and go off course to include parts of Southern Ontario in the run. He flew to the Maritimes to connect with Terry, and brought with him a young man – Bill Vigars. Bill joined Terry in the van and was not only a liaison between the Cancer Society and Terry, but became a good friend and confidant.

“We showed him [Terry] how much we make in Ontario,” recalls Joan, “…he changed his mind. That’s a huge part of the story.”

It is a huge part of the story, because without Harry Rowlands, Barbara Kilbert, Bill Vigars and board members like Joan Gibb, Terry might not have come to the GTA.

Our Chair, Craig Gardner, reached out to Bill Vigars to let him know about our conversation with Joan and Bill was delighted to hear her name.

“We spent so much time working together,” explained Vigars. “She played a major role in influencing the Society to get behind Terry. She was amazing.”

For Burlingtonians, July 13, 1980, was the day Terry ran through our city. It was also the day he ran through neighbouring Oakville. Joan filled me in on what it was like leading up to this day and what happened on the day.

Oakville cancer cheque

Note how the amount of the cheque climbed – $113,000 an impressive number for 1980.

For starters, the Canadian Cancer Society had trouble securing volunteers. Terry’s run through the area happened during the height of summer, when many people were away on holiday. Joan knew there were going to be gaps along the route. None the less, she took on the task of organizing something in her hometown of Oakville.

In 1980, no one had cellphones. This made it harder to coordinate meet-ups, photo ops and accommodations. With a big novelty cheque ready to go, Joan set out to find a place for Terry to greet the community.

Joan ran around trying to gather the media and get a crowd to one spot to greet Terry. The only way she could communicate with the van was through a radio, which is how she learned how far along Terry was in his run. And after all that work, she was rewarded with a memorable greeting.

“I got the first hug. It was smelly, mind you,” recalled Joan.

To remedy the situation Joan had arranged for a cold hotel room where he could shower, and dinner was arranged for that evening. Joan, Terry, the team from the van, some Cancer Society members and a young woman who had given Terry a rose earlier that week dined together.

Gibbs presenting cheque

Terry Fox accepting a cheque from Joan Gibb

The next morning, Terry woke up early to leave Oakville. It was here that a photographer for an Oakville newspaper snapped an iconic image of Terry running at dawn, back-lit by his police escort’s headlights. That photograph went on to win national awards. Joan Gibb is fortunate enough to have an original copy of it.

Message of Hope
To conclude our conversation, we asked Joan to share some words of inspiration for those of us struggling with how we will raise funds this year under such strange circumstances. Her message was simple…think of Terry.

Joan expressed that she’s never been one to say she can’t do something – but since Terry has become such an integral part of her life, she acknowledged that his message has been a guiding force.

If Joan could organize a Terry Fox event in 1980 with little technology and few volunteers, surely we can succeed with all the tools we have available to us today. When it feels hard, think of Terry.

Thank you, Joan for sharing your story with us.
Photographs provided by Joan Gibb from her private collection

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