Dave Parris had endured a particularly brutal week of cancer treatments. He dreaded the thought of putting on a tuxedo and mingling with partiers kicking off the annual Chasco Fiesta.
But one thing you must know: This man doesn't break promises. He had told his 9-year-old granddaughter, Mitella, that he would take her to the ball. She had circled March 21 on her calendar, picked out a special dress.
"I was going,'' Parris said later, "even if somebody had to duct tape me to the chair. I wasn't going to disappoint Mitella.''
Parris soldiered his way to the Spartan Manor and waited for the evening's climactic moment, the naming of King Pithla and Queen Chasco. The annual tradition dates back to 1947 in New Port Richey and recognizes exemplary volunteerism and community service.
The crowd stood and cheered when Parris and Synovus Bank senior vice president Candace Bell Glewen were crowned. Mitella crawled onto his lap, wrapped her arms around him and said, "I prayed really hard that you would win, Pappy.'' And suddenly he didn't feel so sick anymore.
Parris, a 61-year-old Realtor, was nominated by the Good Samaritan Health Clinic, where he regularly donates his skills fixing leaks in the roof or adding on a room. His resume for good deeds is long, but one project in particular keeps him going, much like the promise he made to Mitella. It will be a big part of his legacy.
"I just hope I'm around when it opens,'' he said.
In May 2012, Parris was diagnosed with Stage 4 esophageal cancer. It invaded his liver, bones and stomach and left doctors baffled at how he not only survived but kept working and helping others. It also left him with a sense of urgency to create a Christmas season attraction at the 220-acre Safety Town off State Road 52.
Parris got busy last fall trying to recreate a popular light show like the one in his former hometown, Altoona, Pa. Since then, he has set up a nonprofit corporation (Santa Is Real Inc.), secured a $150,000 loan from the Concourse Council, purchased $100,000 worth of LED lights and leased a 36-by-80-foot ice skating rink.
He has set Nov. 27 as a grand opening for the "Celebration of Lights,'' where families will pay $20 a carload to drive a mile through twinkling animated displays and decorated Christmas trees while listening to carols. The display will run through Jan. 3.
The Pasco Sheriff's Office maintains Safety Town and for years has taught life-saving skills to elementary school children. The 14 miniature buildings, including a replica of the county's historic courthouse, will be decorated for the holidays, and stages will be set up for concerts and other entertainment. Sheriff Chris Nocco has blessed the project, and jail inmates have thinned woods to accommodate some of the animated creatures.
Local companies and individuals buy or lease the lights, and the corporation stores and maintains them. Each display will include the name of the sponsor, such as the oncologist who bought a 60-foot-long animated scene with Santa Claus snowboarding down a mountain.
Parris gets almost giddy when he describes lights in the shape of a concrete mixing truck, spewing snow out the back onto palm trees. Another shows an igloo with a 31-foot Rudolph reindeer fishing. "He pulls out a 20-foot redfish,'' Parris said.
In time, Parris says, proceeds from the annual event will be distributed to nonprofit agencies as determined by the board of directors. His daughter, Kara Parris, 40, who moved from New Jersey with her family to help care for him, has agreed to direct the corporation.
"This is a monster project,'' he said, "but we've made amazing progress. At first, I was afraid to pull the trigger. I was afraid that if I started this thing and died in 30, 60 or 90 days, what would happen? Now I know. People have come out of the woodwork to make this work. They have answered my prayers.''