“Who’s Donna Paris?”
For roughly the last six months of 2014 and a good while after, it was an oft-asked question by visitors entering the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina. At ground level, the source of their question was hard to miss. Surrounded by a sea of blank red and gray brick pavers lining the walkway was one with this inscription: “In Loving Memory of Our Donna ‘AD’ Paris.”
For that stretch of months, it was the only paver near the Library entrance that had words. Later, another memorial paver was placed close by, but Donna’s was still conspicuous.
When Fred Paris, Donna’s husband for 30 years, first saw the paver in a photo texted to him from the BGEA Donor Ministries team, he recognized its prime location. Tears filled his eyes. He was humbled and delighted that Donna’s memory would be honored so prominently.
In fact, he couldn’t think of a better way to esteem his late wife—nicknamed by her niece as “A.D.” for Aunt Donna—the woman whom Fred says emanated the peace that passes all understanding to everyone she met.
Her illness—a rare cancer discovered on a 25th anniversary trip to Hawaii—was a devastating blow to the couple. Despite the sense of loss Fred feels to this day, he has seen God’s providence at work in Donna’s suffering right from the day doctors discovered the brain tumor in that hospital on Maui back in 2004.
Almost immediately, he and Donna experienced the unsurpassable peace that the Apostle Paul notes in Philippians 4:7.
Make no mistake: it was a hardship, and it drove both of them much more deeply into prayer and personal worship of the Lord Jesus Christ. But there was a peace in the storm.
“The Lord had this all set up. I believe that with my whole heart, soul, mind and body,” Fred told Decision.
From that hospital room in Hawaii, Fred went into crisis management mode. When he and Donna learned that one of the best neurosurgeons on the East Coast practiced in their hometown of Newport News, Virginia, they made a rush appointment.
Days later, after the three-and-a-half-hour surgery, the doctor approached Fred and several family members with some grim news: “It’s either a grade 3 or 4 glioblastoma,” he said. “I would give her one to two years.” Then he turned around and walked out of the room. It would be one of several blunt encounters with doctors, but the couple was resolved to fight the disease.
During another conversation with a brain tumor specialist within earshot of Donna, the physician told Fred, “Only 2% of the people with Donna’s cancer survive. … But if she can live five years, chances are, she’ll survive.”
Despite the poor odds, his words gave Donna a goal: Make it five years.
In the thick of Donna’s battle, Fred was working with a North Carolina real estate developer named Blanton Hamilton to identify properties for Walgreens Pharmacies. Hamilton shared Fred and Donna’s story with Graeme Keith, a BGEA board member who attended his church. Moved by their story, Keith contacted Franklin Graham, who called the couple and prayed with them.
“I had a phone to my ear and one to Donna’s,” Fred says. “Franklin stayed on the phone with us for over half an hour and prayed and spoke, and that was the beginning of the relationship with BGEA that is to this day just unbelievable.”
By that time, Donna had started to decline after rallying for a good stretch. She was pushing the five-year mark of her diagnosis.
“Because of her demeanor, everybody who ran into Donna was captivated by her gentleness, kindness and inner strength, which was amazing under the circumstances,” Fred says.
She lived beyond five years, but she succumbed to her cancer on March 16, 2010.
Toward the end, their times worshipping together were limited to mostly Fred reading Scripture, singing and praying while Donna listened or slept.
“It was really Donna’s cancer fight that brought us both into a much deeper, personal relationship with the Lord,” he says. “I mean, we worshipped strongly every day. I still do. That’s the first thing I do with a cup of coffee every morning for probably 45 minutes to an hour.
“I can’t tell you the peace that time with God provides. It’s a little different for everybody, I guess, but it gives you the peace that passes all understanding.”
It’s that same peace that brought Fred through life-threatening heart disease discovered seven months after Donna passed. He was 57 at the time, the same age his older brother had been when he died of a heart attack. God brought Fred through quadruple bypass surgery at the Norfolk Heart Hospital. “I’m still talking to you in 2022,” he says. “Praise the Lord for that.”
And it’s that same peace that led Fred to financially support the Gospel work of BGEA, beginning with the memorial paver honoring Donna at the Library, and continuing to this day. He wants as many people as possible to know the unsurpassable peace found only in Jesus.
“I just fell in love with Jesus Christ, and I love what BGEA stands for,” Fred says. “I love what the ministry has done around the world.”
Like many people, Fred grieves the state of the nation, but he also knows where the ultimate answer is found.
“Go after the Lord,” he says. “Seek Him with all your heart, soul, mind and body, and He’ll respond. But you have to go after Him. He’s not going to force Himself on you.” ©2022 BGEA
Photo: Courtesy of Fred Paris