Tillsonburg native Dennis Fairall (1953-2020) rose to national prominence as a cross-country and track and field coach in a 30-plus year career at the University of Windsor.
His roots in the sport go back to his hometown where Fairall founded the Tillsonburg Legion Track and Field Club in 1974, a club that helped put Tillsonburg ‘on the track and field map’ for more than a decade.
“At that time, there was an original seven athletes that started up with him,” said Kelly Sivyver, who as a young teen was one of the seven.
“When I was in Grade 8, Dennis took me to Bud Wirth who was the Glendale (High School) cross-country and track coach at the time. He had me do a little time trial down the road and back with Bud. That kind of got me started, and it was the next summer that Dennis started the track and field club in town.
“Back then we had regular practices at the cinder track at Annandale (High School). As things got going, the club grew and grew. We might have had 30 athletes or something like that. And we had some Ontario and Canadian champions, like Dave Mills and Ron Becht. And Brad Bennett did well at the Ontario (competitions). Jim Weston was a good hurdler at the time. Annette Vantyghem from Valley Heights, she was a high jumper and did quite well. And Denise Fillion, she was a good sprinter, triple jumper. There was quite a few.”
Fairall’s commitment to the sport translated into success, said Sivyer.
“He put in a lot of time and effort and he was good recruiter – that’s why he did so well at Windsor. 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.”
At the club’s peak, Fairall organized the Tillsonburg Invitational Classic, and was able to recruit high profile athletes including future Olympic medallists like a young Ben Johnson (1988 Summer Olympics gold medallist and double bronze medallist in 1984).
“Not only was Dennis a good track coach, but he recruited officials, volunteers, a lot of people who had been associated with the club over the years. He put them to work in some kind of capacity,” Sivyer added with a laugh.
Fairall, who was working at that time at the Tillsonburg Community Centre in the recreation department, was named Tillsonburg Citizen of the Year in 1983.
“He basically ran the Legion Track and Field Club here until he went to Windsor in 1985,” said Sivyer. “The position of (Tillsonburg) rec director had become available, Dennis applied for it, didn’t get it, then the opportunity became available at the University of Windsor. He joined them and was there for 35 years.
“He got there, started recruiting, and they went from very low profile (in cross-country and track) to what Dennis established. I think they said in total he was nominated coach of the year, between Canadian and Ontario, something like 65 times.”
After Fairall left Tillsonburg, the local track and field club continued to excel under the guidance of Mills and Becht, and a strong executive, and in its last years continued to offer a successful summer youth program.
“Countless people volunteered and kept things going,” said Sivyer. “Even after Dennis was gone, the youth program carried on. But I don’t think anyone had the same passion as Dennis did.
“It was a lifelong dedication for Dennis. That was his life.”
The University of Windsor is holding an online ceremony Saturday live streamed from Dennis Fairall Fieldhouse at 1 p.m., which will include Fairall’s accomplishments.
“I don’t have a link yet, but it should be on their website,” said Sivyer, who along with Brian O’Rourke, Darwin Kent, and Becht will be contributing video clips.
A link will also be provided at the Families First funeral home (https://www.familiesfirst.ca/memorials/dennis-big-dawg–fairall/4417031/).