Writing About an Iconic Man by Elaine Cougler

Historical fiction author Elaine Cougler turns her talents to a book about Ron Calhoun — the man behind the Terry Fox Marathon of Hope and other successful cross-Canada runs. In this book, Elaine has captured Ron’s incredible dedication to causes such as cancer and the complex organization involved in supporting such inspiring events.

Writing the Book About an Iconic Man by Elaine Cougler

About three years ago word came back to me that a long-time friend, Ron Calhoun, was considering a book about his incredible life. He suggested me as the author. At that point I was in the final throes of writing the third book in my Loyalist trilogy—The Loyalist Legacy—and had no time to take Ron’s suggestion seriously. I put it out of my mind.

A year or so later, in the middle of June 2017, Ron brought up the topic again, this time directly to me. I went home and thought about it, talked it over with my husband and a week later called Ron to say I would accept the challenge. We started the next week.

Ron Calhoun and I had been friends for most of my adult life and all I knew about him was good. My husband and I had been on the sidelines when he masterminded the Marathon of Hope with Terry Fox. We knew about his struggles running Steve Fonyo’s Journey For Lives a few years later. Ron had made Ken McColm’s Incredible Journey happen for this blind man afflicted with diabetes to walk across Canada. And we had watched him help with John Davidson’s walk (Jesse’s Journey) pushing his wheelchair bound son, Jesse, across Ontario and then John’s walk across this great wide country of Canada to establish a charity to fight Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

We had worked on Ron’s campaign for a federal seat in parliament and we’d even been on the sidelines as he started and led Partners in Research and VROC, both organizations concerned with scientific testing to discover cures in the health field. Ron was known far and wide within Canada but also across the world through the organizations in which he volunteered, some of which he helped found.

Writing his story would be a dream, I thought.

On the appointed July morning Ron drove from London to my home in Woodstock and arrived on my porch laden with boxes. That day we started what would become our procedure for the next year and a half. I set up the small recorder, placed it between us on my dining room table, poured us what would be the first of many glasses of water, and we started. I had a list of questions to get the story moving and interjected now and then for clarification or because Ron’s words had affected me. We talked for about an hour and a half.

After Ron left me that day, I uploaded the audio file into my computer and used Dropbox to send it to my book interior designer in Paris, France. She transcribed the audio file and sent me back an MS Word file. Then I printed the file and started the actual research for this new book.

Every week or so, Ron and I met again, most of the time at my house. I had him sign an agreement that the book was mine and I told him that I would pay for all of the costs associated with preparing that book. Lovely man that he is, he wanted to pay the costs but I insisted. I wanted to make clear from the outset that the book would be mine. It would be about him but I, as the author, would own the rights to the book.

The first cost was the transcription and was considerable—we ended up with many hours of interviewing and all of that had to be transcribed. Ron always brought with him more memorabilia from his life and I was delighted to get it all.

This whole process was vastly different from the research I had done for my Loyalist trilogy which is historical fiction. With that series I researched libraries, online sources and museums, forts and battlements. Once I had the actual history straight, I went to work creating a fictional family who interacted against the historical framework. I used my own ancestors’ names, where they lived, and events in the American Revolutionary War, but—as I’ve often told audiences—the rest was lies. I simply imagined what my characters might have done faced with the enemy at the door and no help at hand.

I knew from the outset that the Calhoun book was different. I was pretty sure Ron didn’t want me making it up. This was to be an accounting of his life and it had to be truthful. Details had to be exact. Names had to be correct or changed to protect the privacy of the individual. While Ron’s recollection of facts was prodigious for a man of his age (84, when we started), he sometimes came back the next time and changed details or he would call me a day or two after our taping and set the record straight. The man worked really hard on this story of his life.

The book struggled to get out of my head, and I wrote three complete drafts, all quite different. I had Canadian author Barbara Kyle read my second draft and point me in the right direction on so much of what I had written that I started again. Money well spent. As I was writing the third draft, I realized that I could use some of what I had written in the first draft. These were conversations between Ron and Fran Calhoun which were fictional but very much what they might have said. I knew both of these people, so the voices were not too difficult to achieve. This allowed me to beef up the narrative/creative parts in what I was now calling creative non-fiction.

What a learning experience the whole writing of this book has been! I stretched my writing craft and I learned a lot about science and research, virtual reality and fund-raising for charities, interpersonal relationships and the indomitable human spirit—things that my artsy leanings for most of my life did not include. I’ve joked many times that I’m warding off Alzheimer’s every day by learning new things which stretch my brain.

Of course, the best known of Ron’s behind-the-scenes activities is the Marathon of Hope. He invented that iconic phrase in 1979-80 when he was convincing the Canadian Cancer Society to back Terry Fox and his dream. Ron is the only surviving member of that CCS team he chaired in 1979-80. The Marathon of Hope ultimately made world news and continues to do so, almost 40 years later.

Today the Terry Fox Foundation raises millions of dollars and Terry’s dream of raising $1 for every living Canadian in 1980 has been surpassed many times over (close to $800,000,000 at this point). Ron Calhoun was there when it all started. He and Terry sat in Ron’s Thamesford, Ontario home and Ron told Terry about the inner workings of the Cancer Society. Terry decided he wanted the money raised to go to new research, not existing research or ‘bricks and mortar’. They also decided then to increase their expectations to $24,000,000, one dollar for every Canadian at that time.

As I mentioned in The Man Behind the Marathons: How Ron Calhoun Helped Terry Fox and Other Heroes Make Millions for Charity, the Marathon of Hope was a Canadian Cancer Society project. After that event a Toronto man, Isadore Sharp, helped the Fox family create the event and organization that exists today, separate from the Canadian Cancer Society. The Terry Fox Foundation oversees the September runs and donates the money raised to cancer research around the world, much of it going to Canadian projects.

The writing of this book has taught me never to underestimate the strength of someone if they just forge ahead with their dreams. Ron Calhoun is one such person, and he has made a huge difference in our world.

Elaine Cougler is the award-winning author of historical novels about the lives of settlers in the Thirteen Colonies who remained loyal to Britain during the American Revolution. She uses the backdrop of the conflict for page-turning fictional tales where the main characters face torn loyalties, danger and personal conflicts. Her Loyalist trilogy comprises The Loyalist’s Wife, The Loyalist’s Luckand The Loyalist Legacy, all available on Amazon.

The Man Behind the Marathons: The Story of Ron Calhoun and How He Helped Terry Fox and Other Heroes Raise Millions for Charity. Byron native, Ronald G. Calhoun, was the chair of and is the last surviving member of the Canadian Cancer Society team who managed the Marathon of Hope, Terry Fox’s run in 1980. Ron also managed the Jesse’s Journey walk across Ontario and later across Canada, as well as Steve Fonyo’s Journey For Lives and Ken McColm’s walk across Canada. Ron’s honours are many and well deserved. Elaine is delighted and humbled to be writing this important book.

My brief review:

The Man Behind the Marathons is the remarkable story of what one person can achieve as a volunteer. Ron Calhoun is such a person. With Ron’s zest for innovative approaches and his superb and persuasive fundraising skills, tens of millions of dollars have been raised across Canada to fight cancer, muscular dystrophy, diabetes and other causes. Readers will be inspired by Ron’s life and by the incredible marathons of individuals such as Terry Fox, Steve Fonyo, Ken McColm, and John and Jesse Davidson. Their efforts have made our world a better place. ~~ M.K. Tod

Thank you, Elaine, for being on the blog today and for your important contribution in highlighting Ron Calhoun’s life story. There will come a time when some future generation will incorporate Ron’s life and those of Terry Fox and others into historical fiction. Won’t that be amazing!

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  … and other inspiring books … FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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