In 2009, when James “Jim” Vallarta learned his non-Hodgkins lymphoma had traveled to his brain, he had just four words to say: “I’m a dead man.”
But his wife, Cathy, reminded him of the challenges they’d battled through the years. They raised two grandsons. She’d beat breast cancer in 2003. They had business up and downs.
“I said, ‘We’re going to fight this like we’ve fought everything else,’” Cathy said.
So Jim took up a phone book, flipped, called churches and asked for prayers. Some prayed on the spot; others visited him; still more included him on prayer lists.
The Rev. David Nygard, senior pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church in Joliet, where Jim was a member, said Jim often sat quietly in his hospital room with his eyes closed.
“He’d say, ‘I’m just praying for the people who are praying for me,’ ” Nygard said. “It wasn’t just that he contacted people to say, ‘Pray for me.’ He took it on himself to pray for them and whatever their needs might be.”
The prayers worked, Cathy said. And chemotherapy never made James sick.
“He never missed a treatment because his platelets were off or anything like that,” Cathy said. Jim went through chemotherapy beautifully. It was a 10-week course and he went into remission for five years. They were just going to consider him cured, which they say cannot be done with the non-Hodgkins lymphoma, but at the five-year mark, they found a lump behind his ear, a tumor that had attached to his brain.”
Jim had more chemotherapy, which put him in remission for another three years.
“It returned in October 2017 and they put him through the treatments,” Cathy said. “But by then the cancer had outsmarted the chemo and he was exhausted.”
Cathy said Jim grew up in Freeport as one of 10 children in the only Hispanic family in town, which is why Jim’s mother made Jim stay in the backyard.
“I think that’s one of the reason why he was so determined to get out and do things,” Cathy said.
Jim’s obituary said he held records on the track team at Freeport High School and also was an active member of the school’s football team. Cathy said that, because Jim knew discrimination, Jim felt he had to outperform the rest to be considered equal.
Cathy met James at her church when she was 15 and he was 20. Although she liked his smile and knew he liked her – Cathy had even given him a picture of her – she backed away because of their age difference.
“When he went into the Army, he set that picture up on a shelf, looked at it and said, ‘God, I want to marry this woman,’ ” Cathy said.
According to his obituary, Jim was a Vietnam veteran, having served in the 101st Airborne as a paratrooper with the Army. While stationed in Fort Campbell Army base, Jim often hitchhiked to Chicago just to see Cathy.
At 19, Cathy began dating Jim.Three months later, they were engaged. She recalled the first time they danced.
“It was like we were born to dance together,” Cathy said. “Everyone used to say that.” She paused and then added, “I always wished we could have danced one more time.”
According to his obituary, Jim was a court reporter in Will County, for Illinois’ 12th judicial circuit court, and he owned Vallarta Reporting Service. He also pursed several patent and business ventures.
“He just had a vision for things,” Cathy said. “And he wanted to see his visions grow.”
Through all James’ enterprises, one characteristic remained consistent.
“It was always important to him to be a man of integrity, to give a full day’s work for a full day’s pay, to get the job done when other people might have let something slough off,” Nygard said.
Nygard said Jim also had a strong faith, which grew stronger as Jim battled cancer. Jim not only brought his grandsons to youth events at church, he’d drive around town picking up their friends and bring them, too.
Jim also distributed Bibles through Gideons International.
“Most people are shy about sharing their faith,” Nygard said. “But he just loved being out with people, interacting and meeting people. It was never a confrontation; it was never in your face. It was always, ‘Would you like to have one of these?’ and then he’d engage people in conversation and hear their stories.”
Nygard said Jim loved his extended family and often brought friends to restaurants near his old neighborhood and shared stories of former days. He left a wonderful legacy.
“He gave his children a good start in life, especially the two younger boys who had a troubled beginning,” Nygard said. “He got them focused and in a good, solid home, and he planted the seed of faith in their hearts. And now both of them are very strong, hardworking individuals.”
Moreover, James loved Cathy and encouraged her faith. In the end, Nygard said, she became the strong one.
“She listened and prayed with him and made sure people were there to listen and pray with him, too,” Nygard said. “I think she finally gave him permission to go home to Heaven in the end.”
Jim was 79 when he died Sept. 27.
• To feature someone in “An Extraordinary Life,” contact Denise M. Baran-Unland at 815-280-4122 or firstname.lastname@example.org.