Dennis Fairall, a legendary track and field coach at the University of Windsor, will become a 'Favourite Son of Tillsonburg' at a special ceremony on Sunday, Oct. 30 at The Bridges.
"We are going to send out some invitations, but it is also going to be open to the public," said Brian O'Rourke, who got the nomination process started in December 2015. "Dennis and Janet, his wife, will be there of course. Janet will be speaking for him."
Born in 1953 at TDMH and raised in Tillsonburg, Fairall has been a notable figure in Canadian sports for decades, first as an athlete and later as a coach.
"Dennis' impact on students as well as the entire track and field program across Canada is unprecedented," said 'Favourite Son' Colin Campbell, who helped nominate Fairall for the award, in a media release. "He's an icon."
The Town of Tillsonburg recognizes athletes, teams, coaches and community builders in its Sports Hall of Fame program - Fairall has been inducted three times as coach and team - but the Favourite Son and Daughter titles are presented to individuals from a variety of fields including arts, culture, business, sport and philanthropy.
Fairall will join an illustrious group that includes Campbell, Gerry Livingston, Johnny Cowell, Richard Nemeth, Margaret Fishback-Powers, and Harley Hotchkiss (2011).
"From time to time, the Town of Tillsonburg has the opportunity to recognize individuals who have made exceptional contributions not only to our community, but Canada and the world," said Tillsonburg Mayor Stephen Molnar. "Dennis has put Tillsonburg on the map and helped many, many athletes reach their potential."
University of Windsor athlete Melissa Bishop, a two-time Olympian, is just one of many athletes to prosper under Fairall's tutelage. Bishop finished fourth in 800m at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, just missing a medal by 13 one-hundredths of a second. She will be in attendance on the 30th, said O'Rourke.
"Dennis has been the most important relationship of this career just because he's made my dreams come true," Bishop has told the Windsor Star.
It's a sentiment that has been echoed many times over the years.
Fairall, who began coaching in Windsor in 1985, is one of the most decorated coaches in Canadian university sport history. He led Windsor teams to 25 Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) championships and 46 Ontario University Athletics (OUA) titles. He was honoured 65 times as either CIS or OUA coach of the year and his Lancer track and field teams dominated the provincial championships for 25 years with 22 wins of for the men and 17 for the women.
Fairall left the University of Windsor for health reasons in the fall of 2015 after 29 years. He continued to coach Bishop and two others leading up to the 2016 Olympics.
In addition to his induction into Tillsonburg's Sport Hall of Fame, he has been inducted into Windsor/Essex County's Hall, University of Windsor's, and Athletics Ontario's Hall. He was Tillsonburg's Citizen of the Year in 1982.
"The people of Tillsonburg have been cheering Dennis on for years," said nominator Brian O'Rourke. "Even as a young man, he was already making his mark."
Athlete of the Year at Glendale in his graduating year, Fairall was a member of several WOSSA basketball championships.
"I coached him for five years in high school basketball, and he was good in track, too," said O'Rourke, noting Fairall was coached by Bud Wirth. "He participated in one of the rarest events in high school track in western Ontario - the 100m dash when seven guys tied for first in that final. They could not determine a winner. That was on a Saturday, so I think they had them back on a Tuesday to run the race again.
"Dennis did not win that race," O'Rourke smiled. "I think he finished third or fourth, I can't be sure."
As a Griffins basketball player, Fairall played behind an all-Canadian star for four years.
"Bruce Coulthard was our guard - Bruce played two years of junior, two years of senior, then went to Canisius College in Buffalo. So Dennis practiced a lot with Bruce. In his fifth year, Dennis started as a point guard. A couple things happened - we still had a couple veterans back that were good - and we got into the WOSSA final against Westminster out of London. And they had a good team - they had the Prpich brothers and they had a guy named Bill Jansenberger ("I think he was 6'6" who eventually became a chiropractor... but that's another story")... Anyway, we beat them by about 14 in our gym and Dennis got 14 points in that game.
"Bruce - he watched that game - said to me after, 'Dennis played a nice game.' I said, 'He played terrific.' You know what Bruce said? 'You should have played him more,'" O'Rourke laughed. "My answer was 'he was too busy trying to guard you.'
"That was a high level of basketball that we were playing at the time (1970s), beating the best London schools, and we did it for a number of years.
"Dennis was terrific at that position, and that year I think we finished fifth at the All-Ontario, which was a great accomplishment.
"Dennis also loved track... and well, nobody knows this but I'm going to take credit for that," O'Rourke winked. "Because we used to have this (wind sprints) drill in basketball that I made them run three or four times in a practice. We called it the one minute drill. You'd run and touch the foul line, and come back, then centre-court line, then the three-quarter, then the end line, and come back. Dennis always was way ahead of everybody else. And he always kept telling me, 'I ran it in 39.9' and so on. In the five years, nobody ever beat Dennis.
"He loved it, but I'm taking credit for it," O'Rourke smiled. "He was always sort of an impish kid, fun loving."
Later at UWO, Fairall was on a 4x200 men's relay team that set a Canadian inter-collegiate record.
Fairall returned to Tillsonburg in 1974 to become an integral member in developing the Tillsonburg Legion Track Club, and helped install the all-weather track which brought international competitors to Tillsonburg. The track is still in use - in a limited fashion - at Annandale Public School today.
Fairall also owns harness racing horses, O'Rourke noted, recalling he was interested in the sport while still in high school.
"We're also hopeful to have someone from the harness racing world speak," said O'Rourke.
The Favourite Son festivities will take place from 2-4 p.m. at The Bridges at Tillsonburg (101 John Pound Road) on Oct. 30.
"Dennis greatly enriched this community while he was a resident here, and has gone on to make all of us incredibly proud," summed up Molnar.
"Be not afraid of greatness," said O'Rourke, quoting Shakespeare. "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. Dennis achieved a form of greatness in Canadian sport."