Tillsonburg lost one of its Favourite Sons with the death of Dennis Fairall (1953-2020) 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, 400-metre hurdles silver medallist at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, and recalled Roger Kingdom, two-time Olympic gold medallist and world record holder in 110-metre high hurdles, also competing in Tillsonburg.
“That meet was held at the all-weather track at Annandale,” said O’Rourke, “and Dennis was instrumental in that track being built, let alone hosting and organizing the meet.”
Over his career, much of it at the University of Windsor, Fairall coached more than 1,800 athletes, won 25 Canadian university championships and 46 Ontario university athletics titles.
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.
“The Tillsonburg Favorite Son and Daughter Award is the highest level of recognition that this proud community can bestow on one of its citizens,” said Mayor Stephen Molnar at the 2016 recognition ceremony. “Dennis greatly enriched this community while he was a resident here, and has gone on to make all of us incredibly proud.”
O’Rourke recalled a statement from Colin Campbell at Fairall’s Favourite Son award ceremony.
“He (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’ impact on students as well as the entire track and field program across Canada is unprecedented,” said Campbell, also a Favourite Son, in his nomination letter for Fairall.
“He’s an icon.”
Recognizing that Dennis had been inducted into many halls of fame over the years, his wife Janet Fairall, speaking on his behalf at the 2016 ceremony, said the Favourite Son award was “far, far more.”
“It is being remembered by those at home, the place where your heart rests,” said Janet. “It feels like you’re 12 again and you accomplished a task where your dad pats you on the head and quietly says, ‘that-ta boy Dennis.’ So, to all of you, thank for being the mentor, the father, the mother, the sister, the brother, the friend. The names are too endless to mention, but if you are sitting with us today, or if you are remembering someone who is here in memory, you are part of the reason why Dennis is here. Thank you for drawing us back to home where our hearts will always remain, and for considering that Dennis is a favourite son.”
Fairall, who was 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.
“One of Dennis’ first loves was road hockey and he was a good hockey player as a kid,” said O’Rourke. “He and Ron Becht and Darwin Kent, they played road hockey together on Venison (Street) near St. Mary’s. And his dad was a scout for the Cleveland Indians, so he was into that (baseball) stuff. And he was a horseman – there was a big interest in Tillsonburg in harness racing for a period of time – and Dennis had very successful horses while he was in Windsor.
“He loved basketball, too. He played five years at Glendale, four of those years behind one of the best players in the province, if not the best player in the province, Bruce Coulthard.”
In his fifth year, after Coulthard had left for Canisius College (Buffalo), Fairall was point guard on Glendale’s WOSSA championship team.
“London Westminster had a super team, except we didn’t lose much in Tillsonburg when we played at home,” said O’Rourke, his basketball coach. “Dennis played a flawless game as point guard, he had 12-13 points and 11 assists. He was terrific.”
O’Rourke said Fairall’s main love, next to Dennis’ wife Janet who he met at Glendale when he was in Grade 11 and she was in Grade 9, was track.
“When you have a passion for a sport like that, you learn from clinics and high-end track coaches. He was a ‘student of the game’ and became a great coach. What he did at the University of Windsor will never be done again in any track program in this country.
“And he was a great high school kid, he always had a smile on his face. Any time he was late for school, he never got a detention because the attendance secretary liked him,” O’Rourke laughed. “’He’s such a nice kid,’ she would say. Dennis was a good guy… and he was taken too soon. His memory will be a blessing to us all.”
Visitations – by invitation – are taking place in Windsor over a two to three-day period, said O’Rourke, noting Thursday afternoon was tentatively designated for Tillsonburg-area friends and family.
“I don’t know how it will be set up, except I think there will be intervals when people can go in. I think they’re limited as to how many they can have with the whole COVID thing.”