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Rotarian determined to create Pasco winter wonderland

Although he’s battling cancer, Dave Parris is working to create a holiday vista at Safety Town, adorning the educational village’s miniature buildings, such as the historic courthouse replica.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Although he’s battling cancer, Dave Parris is working to create a holiday vista at Safety Town, adorning the educational village’s miniature buildings, such as the historic courthouse replica.

Dave Parris talks fast, like a man running out of time.

He knows he is unlikely to see his dream come true, so he's rushing to create a blueprint for others to follow.

On the 220 acres just west of the Suncoast Parkway, you may see thick woods and a charming miniature village where schoolchildren learn safety tips. Parris sees millions of twinkling lights, Santa Claus and reindeer pulling his sleigh, an ice skating rink and church choirs, mangers and menorahs. He sees a magical place, a winter wonderland much like the one he remembers from his old hometown in Pennsylvania. He's determined to bring one here.

And one thing is certain: Dave Parris isn't just talk. A few hundred yards from Safety Town sits a 10,000-square-foot pavilion that has hosted many a party over the last 10 years. Out front by the American flag, a 7,000-pound granite monument is engraved with Parris' face and words of appreciation for his vision and hard work that made the pavilion a reality. His fellow New Port Richey Rotarians surprised him with it last January when they, too, thought he might be running out of time.

In May 2012, the 61-year-old Realtor experienced some discomfort swallowing. He didn't think much of it until a fellow Rotarian who had similar symptoms went for an exam and learned he had esophageal cancer. Parris thought he'd better get checked.

The diagnosis could not have been worse. He had Stage 4 cancer of his esophagus, and the disease had spread through his liver and into lymph glands. "My doctor said I had very little time left,'' he recalled. "It was like somebody hit me in the head with a 2 by 4.''

He had just about decided not to fight it, "but then my kids started coming down,'' he said. "They helped convince me to buy whatever time I could.''

He started chemotherapy and in November volunteered for a clinical study at the famous Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. He flew up every 10 days for 15 weeks and took a drug called Afatinib while doctors monitored his progress.

It didn't work.

Parris, who owns the Krauss Organization real estate agency in Port Richey, pledged to make the most of whatever time he had left. He and Carol, his wife of 43 years, spent quality time with son Michael, who manufactures skis in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Kara, who recently earned a master's in public health in New Jersey.

"I really started to appreciate every day,'' he said, "even when I didn't feel all that great. When you realize that any day could be your last, you want to make it a good one.''

He decided to get busy on a project he and fellow Rotarians Bill Woodard and Steve Henry had begun three years earlier. Parris grew up in Altoona, Pa., and had been blown away by the Christmas light show at the Lakemont amusement park. "Thousands of families drive through it every year,'' he said. "They had 900 cars on the ninth of January.''

The three men visited Altoona and then paid to have its light show director visit Pasco County for four days. "He got tears in his eyes when he saw what we have here,'' Parris said.

Safety Town has 14 miniature buildings, including a replica of the historic Pasco County Courthouse. It has paved roads, street lights and a railroad crossing. The Sheriff's Office maintains the property and teaches schoolchildren safety lessons. Sheriff Chris Nocco is in the New Port Richey Rotary Club and has become Parris' close friend. He loves the idea.

Parris, meanwhile, has been meeting with members of the Concourse Council, the nonprofit that oversees the 220-acre property and leases the Rotary pavilion and Safety Town. The council received $2 million for right-of-way land the state needed when it widened SR 52, and Parris has asked the group for a $150,000 loan, seed money that would help prepare the property for the light show. His Rotary club kicked in another $7,500.

He outlines his plan with a sense of urgency. Three months ago, cancer moved into his bones and spine. Then six weeks ago, he couldn't see out of his left eye. Doctors found a small malignant tumor. About the same time, they detected cancer near the center of his brain. Friends drove him to Tampa for 15 chemo treatments at Moffitt Cancer Center.

Last week, as he gave a guided tour of Safety Town, Parris said he was confident the Christmas light show would become a reality, probably next year.

"I may not be around to see it,'' he said, "but there are so many people who think this is a good idea. I'm not trying to create any kind of legacy. When I'm gone, I'm gone. But I am laying a foundation for something exciting for our community.

"That makes me happy.''

Rotarian determined to create Pasco winter wonderland 09/20/13 [Last modified: Friday, September 20, 2013 7:23pm]

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