Some years ago, innovative writers doing an ad for an Alexander thing -- Discovery Channel, I think -- shot an ice hockey player by the name of Wayne Gretzky giving his definition of "great." The idea was to get someone great to define great, since Gretzky, or "The Great One" as he's been nicknamed, is held by all who know hockey as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, hockey player ever.
He said something along the lines of, great is someone who does something that you look at and just go "wow." Someone doing something completely unique, that's never been done before.
So that would apply to Alexander, and yet for him it should have the added dimension of a life lived in such a way as to make a major difference in the world, another standard definition of "great." Of course with Alexander, whether you think that was for good or ill depends very much on which side you were on (at the time) or your perspective (looking at it from the present).
Being that it is Sept. 16, I'd like to tell you all a story which illustrates my own idea of what greatness is. I think you'll be hard put not to disagree. I need only think of these events to put myself in tears (it's happening again as I write this)... the kind of tears that feel good to cry, because they are tears of inspiration, of awe, and of joy that human beings can be so much better than they often seem to be.
In Canada, Sept. 16 is the traditional date of the Annual Terry Fox Run, which people across the country have been participating in to raise funds for cancer research for 26 years.
Terry Fox was a high school student and an athlete of average talent but uncommon determination when he was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1977. To prevent the disease from spreading, his right leg would be amputated above the knee. Even so, he had only a 50-70% chance of surviving.
Quoting from a Sept. 1, 1980 newspaper article
The night before his operation, his high school basketball coach, Terri Fleming, brought him a running magazine which featured an article about an amputee, Dick Traum, who had run in the New York City Marathon. And though his future was never more precarious, Terry dreamed that night about running across Canada.
He was haunted by what he had seen in the cancer ward -- kids being told they would die, kids screaming in pain, kids wasting away. "Somewhere, the hurting must stop," he wrote in his letter requesting sponsors. "I was determined to take myself to the limit for those causes.” I'm going to run across Canada to raise funds for cancer research, he told the Canadian Cancer Society, which was skeptical at first, and told him to find seed money and corporate donors. He found them.
“I'm competitive,” Terry said. “I'm a dreamer. I like challenges. I don't give up. When I decided to do it, I knew I was going to go all out. There was no in-between.”
Over 18 months he trained up to the point at which he could run a marathon -- 26.5 miles -- per day. On April 12, 1980, he dipped his artificial leg in St. John's harbor on the Atlantic Ocean, and began what he had named the Marathon of Hope.
Got that? Not 26.5 miles in a competition on one day, as the culmination of lengthy training. 26.5 miles PER DAY. Not 26.5 miles per day on two good legs with an even, balanced motion, as our bodies are designed to do, but on ONE leg and a prosthesis. He had a limping gait which came to be known as the "Fox trot." (Video)
On one leg, this guy would have kept up with Alexander's army, no problem. Or got ahead of them -- Alexander knew to rest his army now and then. Terry Fox fox-trotted 26.5 miles per day, 143 DAYS STRAIGHT.
See, Canada is a really big country -- now that the Soviet Union no longer exists, I think it must be the largest in the world in land mass. Most people shrink even from driving across it, taking airliners instead. It takes two days just to drive across Ontario. Terry Fox's planned route was about 5,000 miles; that's why he started in April, which is still pretty chilly here. He wanted to get to Vancouver and dip his leg in the Pacific before there was serious cold and snow.
No one paid any attention at first. But gradually word spread of the incredible story that was unfolding. The media got on to it, prominent people started paying attention and lending their own cred to the drive, crowds started lining the streets in every town he passed through, and donations mounted. Gravenhurst, which is quite near where I live, raised $14,000 -- nearly $2 for every resident. He'd started with a goal of a million dollars. But he started thinking, what if everyone in the country donated just one dollar? That would be $23 million or so. Why not?
But he never made it to the Pacific.
About two thirds of the way, near Thunder Bay, Ontario (about a two-hour drive from where I live), he realized the chest pains he'd been suffering weren't going away. On Sept. 1, he had himself driven to the nearest hospital, where doctors discovered the cancer had spread to his lungs.
Did the incredible strain on his body contribute to that spread? It's hard to imagine it didn't. As well, running across the country for the last four and a half months had kept him away from regular check-ups.
The whole country was stunned and heartbroken. One of the national TV networks held a telethon the next day that raised $10 million dollars. Two provincial governments donated $1 million each.
Ten months of fighting the disease later, Terry Fox died, one month short of his 23rd birthday. The final tally of the Marathon of Hope was $23.5 million -- $1 and change for every Canadian.
But supporters were determined that the Marathon of Hope would never end, and began organizing Terry Fox Runs every Sept. 16. All over Canada, people are invited to run, walk, wheel, bike, roller-blade or otherwise propel themselves, so long as the propelling force is muscle alone, to raise funds for cancer. And they do, in virtually every town. Not counting this year, as it's too early, the total raised has been about $400 million. Terry Fox has gained the distinction of being named, in that register of modern greatness the Guinness Book of World Records, as the world's greatest fundraiser. In Canada he's been showered with every honour from our version of knighthood to his face on a stamp to a mountain being named after him. On the side of the highway where he had to stop, there's a beautiful bronze statue, that even has beads of sweat on the forehead, and stands on a base of amethyst.