Tillsonburg lost one of its favourite sons with the death of Dennis Fairall last Friday.
Fairall, who excelled as a cross-country and track and field coach at the University of Windsor, first made a name for himself while in his hometown of Tillsonburg.
“He hosted international track meets here for two or three consecutive years,” said Brian O’Rourke. “He had Olympic gold medal competitors here, and it was an ‘event of the summer.’”
O’Rourke remembers billeting American athlete Danny Harris, who won silver in the 400-metre hurdles at the 1984 Summer Olympics. He also recalled Roger Kingdom, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and world-record holder in 110-metre high hurdles, also competing in Tillsonburg.
A young Ben Johnson – just before his 1988 gold medal – also participated.
Over his career – mostly at the University of Windsor – Fairall coached more than 1,800 athletes, won 25 Canadian university championships and 46 Ontario university athletics titles.
He was also Tillsonburg’s Citizen of the Year in 1983.
And in 2016, Fairall became one of only seven in the history of the town to receive Tillsonburg’s prestigious Favourite Son or Daughter Award.
O’Rourke recalled a statement from Colin Campbell at Fairall’s Favourite Son Award ceremony.
“(Campbell) said, ‘Dennis is the only coach I know who doesn’t yell at his athletes.’ He said every coach he had ever come across, it didn’t matter what sport, they were always carrying on. Dennis never did.
“Dennis’s impact on students, as well as the entire track and field program across Canada, is unprecedented,” Campbell, also a Favourite Son, wrote in his nomination letter for Fairall. “He’s an icon.”
Fairall, 67, died after a long battle with progressive supranuclear palsy. He stepped away from his coaching roles in 2015 after 29 years.
“He was named Canadian or conference coach of the year 65 times in 30 years,” O’Rourke noted. “How does a guy do that? Nobody has had an impact on track – as a coach – as that guy. “
Fairall had a love for many sports, not just track and field, which he excelled at while at Glendale high school. He played hockey, basketball and baseball and was involved in harness racing.
He helped found the Tillsonburg Legion Track and Field Club in 1974 before eventually turning Windsor into the premier track and field school in Canada.
“He put in a lot of time and effort and he was good recruiter – that’s why he did so well at Windsor,” Kelly Sivyer, who was one of the first seven athletes in the club, said. “Even before he went to Windsor, just recruiting people to come to the legion track club. It would not have thrived if it wasn’t for Dennis.”
Fairell applied for the director of recreation in Tillsonburg in the mid 1980s but, after being passed over, eventually joined the University of Windsor in 1985.
“It was a lifelong dedication for Dennis. That was his life,” Sivyer said.
Visitations – by invitation – are taking place in Windsor over a two- to three-day period, said O’Rourke.
The University of Windsor is holding an online ceremony Saturday – live-streamed from Dennis Fairall Fieldhouse at 1 p.m. – that will include Fairall’s accomplishments.