There's a story Jack Pavlat likes to tell about his daughter, Suzie. The family had just moved from Virginia Beach, Va. to the Target House longterm residence at the St. Jude Children's Hospital. Ten-year-old Suzie had been diagnosed with neuroblastoma, but was feeling good the day she moved in. She noticed the fountain with the elephant statues that sits out in front of the building. 

“When we moved in she said, ‘Dad, can you wade in there?’" Pavlat, a soft-spoken Navy man, recalls to Taste of Country. "I said, 'You can until they tell you you can’t.'"

"The guard came up to me about a half-hour later and said, ‘Your child, I had to pull her out of the wading pond,'" he adds.

Pavlat laughs at the memory because it was so Suzie. She was an "ask for forgiveness, not permission" kind of girl, which her parents -- who were in their 40s when they had her -- encouraged. During Suzie's eight-year battle with cancer, Jack and his wife Barbara remained positive, despite hearing some ugly statistics about their only child's form of the disease and despite getting within one month of a milestone that often indicates the cancer was defeated, only to see it return.

Suzie and I only spoke about death once, and at that time, she said, ‘Daddy, if I die, will people remember me?’ And I told her it would be my job to make sure she is remembered.

Even now, 12 years after Suzie died in their home at age 11, the Pavlats are a beacon of hope.

"I really don’t remember the bad times," Pavlat, now 65, says. "I don’t remember the intensive care unit. But I do remember her building her tent and the day I gave her an electronic Whoopee Cushion and how much fun she had with that.”

Jack Pavlat is still very active at St. Jude. He and his wife serve on the family advisory council, and Jack often speaks to groups at the St. Jude Country Cares conference. His reasons for being such a great advocate are altruistic -- the man wants to whoop cancer's butt as bad as anyone -- and personal.

"Suzie and I only spoke about death once, and at that time, she said, ‘Daddy, if I die, will people remember me?’ And I told her it would be my job to make sure she is remembered," he assures.

The week Suzie was diagnosed with cancer was emotional, obviously. But Jack and Barbara didn't have time to get angry or wonder why. He tells Taste of Country the rest of the story, adding details about that week in late June 1993 that he doesn't normally include.

"I actually had my colon removed that Monday because I had colon cancer. On Wednesday, we found out Suzie had neuroblastoma," he shares. "And then on Friday, my wife informed me she had breast cancer.”

Barbara elected to have surgery, and the couple have been cancer free for nearly 21 years. Suzie didn't have that option, so her long battle began. People would ask how they got through it, to which Jack would respond: "How do you not?"

Sure, he had his private moments of doubt, but for his family, he always wore a smile and preached positivity.

Like so many families at St. Jude, Jack has story after story to tell about the quality of care. He'll talk about the Ronald McDonald House and Target House, where the family lived for 22 months. It's where Suzie took piano lessons and kept up with her schoolwork to the point that she could have easily transitioned back into elementary school that fall.

While Suzie formed a unique bond with other sick kids, the parents forged relationships that were equally meaningful. Natural support groups developed, allowing those just beginning their journey to learn all they needed to know about neuroblastoma or any of the other life-threatening illnesses.

I hate to say it, but I hadn’t met a Stage 4 neuroblastoma survivor for years. And in the last 4 years, I’ve met five.

In the years since his official stay at St. Jude ended, Pavlat has learned to appreciate the little changes at the campus. Things like a valet service for mothers bringing their kids, or volunteers helping carry cafeteria trays to assist parents pulling a sick child in a wagon make the difference. Of course, it's all free.

“The whole 22 months that I lived there, I never had to pay any rent for that apartment -- it was all given to me by St. Jude," Pavlat says.

And then there's the research. Pavlat said Suzie had a 10 percent chance of survival. If she were diagnosed today, she'd have a 75 percent chance. “I hate to say it," he adds, "but I hadn’t met a Stage 4 neuroblastoma survivor for years. And in the last 4 years, I’ve met five.”

There are still hard times for the Pavlats. This longtime military man admits he didn't bring great discipline to his daughter's life. He just couldn't say no to her.

“I wonder what she would look like," he says when asked what triggers his emotions. "I wonder how many orifices would have earrings stuck out of them. I go to the mall and I see these short skirts and these real tight pants or these real sloppy kids, or would half her hair be purple and the other half green?”

Pavlat says this with love and a little bittersweet laughter, but not a drop of anger or negativity. He may be the most positive man you'll ever meet. Day by day, he's helping find a cure while keeping his promise to his daughter. In fact, he says she's still with him every day.

“Yesterday, I couldn’t find my keys, and I just stopped. I said ‘Suzanne, where are my keys?’" he tells us. "And I stood there for about three minutes and went right to them.”

He adds, “I think she watches over her old man to make sure he doesn’t goof off too bad.”

Today (March 6) and Friday, Taste of Country is pressing pause on coverage of all but the most pressing news stories in an effort to raise money for St. Jude. For 25 years, country radio, artists and record labels have helped raise more than $500 million, ensuring that no one ever pays a dime for treatment at St. Jude.

“No child should die in the dawn of life,” founder Danny Thomas once said. Help make that wish a reality by making a donation or becoming a Partner in Hope when you click the button below. Donations can be made by phone at 800-411-9898.


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