ESCORTING A NATIONAL HERO
April 15, 2015 By Ryan Siegmund
Then constable John Soffe pulling his motorcycle into the Brigadoon restaurant parking lot, near the Scarborough-Pickering border, at about 4:30 am July 11, 1980. The assignment û escorting a hero in the making; five provinces and some 3,500 km after starting his Marathon of Hope, Terry Fox had made it to Toronto.
First impressions are lasting, and Soffe, then two years on the motorcycle unit and now a sergeant in the Toronto Police traffic unit, vividly recalls Fox’s determination.
“As soon as we met, as soon as he got out of the van to start, he was like ‘let’s go, what are we waiting for? I am out of the van, I don’t want to stand around here.’ He was just a very determined young guy and I was really impressed by him.”
Soffe and another traffic officer were responsible for keeping Fox going without interruption, ensuring he hit only green lights and was able to continue on through. A traffic cruiser trailed Fox and Soffe was up front leading the way the entire day. He remembers it being a very quiet run during the early morning hours, but the few people on the road were still mindful about what was going on.
“People were not a big problem for him out on the streets when we were in Scarborough. They were stopping and clapping and pulling over but they were not getting in his way.”
Fox’s run this day was perhaps his busiest, with plenty of media attention and visitations. His acclaim had grown substantially in Ontario.
He made his way through Scarborough, breaking for a quick breakfast, followed by a television interview; then it was on to the Scarborough Civic Centre and thousands of school kids waiting to talk with him.
After a busy early morning, Soffe led Fox to his downtown Toronto hotel, where he would rest before trekking down University Avenue.
“It wasn’t until we got to University that he actually got this big group running with him from out of the hotel,” recalls Soffe. “I remember this being around noon because people, including my wife, were coming out and, during their lunch breaks, showing their support. It was down University where he was joined by Darryl Sittler (former Toronto Maple Leaf captain) and that’s where I have this picture of me leading him, Sittler and a bunch of girls running with banners and such.”
They ended up at Nathan Phillips Square in downtown Toronto, where Fox went on stage in front of an estimated 10,000 people and was presented with Sittler’s 1980 NHL all-star team sweater. The Cancer Society estimated it collected $100,000 that day alone.
“Once you started getting all the business people coming out and in the square itself, there was a ton of people, which was nice to see,” says Soffe.
They continued on to the mayor’s office, where Fox exchanged more pleasantries. He made his final stop at a Toronto Argonaut’s football game that evening.
“I was done, I think, at about 7:00 o’clock that night û it was a long but good day. He didn’t run his usual 30k when I saw him that day because of all the media things he was doing.
“He was only a few years younger than me at the time, and here I was starting my career and doing this beside him. I’m watching this kid do something for a cause. It was very obvious that he was getting the word out and it was very impressive. He was amazing, a very determined kid.”
This year is the 35th anniversary of Fox’s quest to run across Canada to raise money for cancer research. His run, of course, was cut short near Thunder Bay when the cancer returned. Soffe doesn’t recall Fox enduring any pain during his day with him.
“He wasn’t talking a lot of the time because he was so focused, but occasionally he would say something to me and I would turn around and we would yak. It didn’t appear that he was running in pain; he was doing his thing. I was asking him if the exhaust from my bike was bad and I recall him saying that the cities were worse. He had a job to do, basically, and that was what he was doing.”
Looking back, Soffe never imagined Terry’s stature would have elevated into what it is today. “It’s his history but I am happy to be a part of it,” he says.
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