"Babbette's smile was like a sunflower. I miss her terribly, but I feel blessed for the time we did have," Don Jaquish Jr. tells PEOPLE

By Cathy Free
Updated August 19, 2015 12:55 PM
Courtesy of Jennifer White

Along a four-mile stretch of Highway 85 southwest of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, they suddenly appear: Thousands and thousands of giant sunflowers, stretching their heads toward the sky and lighting up the landscape as a tribute to a woman whose sunny personality and smile touched everyone she met.

Babbette Jaquish, known in her farming community as the “sunflower lady,” died last November at age 66, after a nine-year fight against multiple myeloma, a cancer that causes plasma cells to multiply and push out healthy cells.

Early on in her battle, Babbette told her husband, Don Jaquish Jr., that she wanted to plant several hundred acres of her favorite flowers and sell the harvest as birdseed, with a portion of the proceeds going to cancer research.

But her husband took her wish much further than that.

This past spring, Don, 65, who has farmed corn and soybeans since 1972, not only planted several hundred acres of sunflowers to fulfill his wife’s dream, he added 80 acres of sunflowers along Highway 85 in Babbette’s honor.

Currently at the height of their bloom, the display reminds everyone that “Babbette was as beautiful inside as out,” says Don, who met his wife in 2000 when she was selling grain bins to area farmers. “She was so kind and so loved by everybody around here. People would hug her and say, ‘We don’t what it is, but you’re like an angel.’ ”

Babbette helped Don and his son, Jason, on the farm, handling the bookkeeping and ordering supplies. “She was the most talented woman – she could go for a walk, pick a bunch of weeds, put them in a vase and make them look like they belonged in a flower shop,” Don tells PEOPLE. “But more than anything, she loved sunflowers.”

In 2006, when Babbette learned that her fatigue was caused by Stage IV multiple myeloma, doctors estimated that she had only two weeks to two months to live.

“She fought it with everything she had and went through 23 treatments,” Don says. “And while she was fighting it, she came up with the idea to plant sunflowers and raise money for cancer research. She knew the impact that cancer has on families.”

Babbette’s Seeds of Hope was started in December 2014 by Don and Jenny White, Babbette’s daughter from a previous marriage, who now helps out on the farm.

After the sunflower seeds are harvested in late September, “we’ll figure out how much we can give to cancer research in my mom’s memory,” White tells PEOPLE. “This was so important to her. More than anything, she wanted to do something to help other people going through the same battle she went through. My mom’s biggest wish was to have a world without cancer.”

Before she died on Nov. 17, Babbette wrote Don an emotional letter, thanking him for 14 years of love and companionship.

“Don’t be sad for long, but be happy that we were able to find each other and have the time she did,” she wrote. “Feel me in the morning and when you wake up and make your coffee. I love you very much and will never be far away. I will be there with you always.”

When Babbette’s sunflowers bloomed in early August, “it was so beautiful – for miles, it just glowed,” says Don, who plans to plant a new crop year after year. “Babbette’s smile was like a sunflower. Her personality was like a sunflower. I miss her terribly, but I feel blessed for the time we did have. She was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known.”