Jonathan Nevin poses with a few props from Frankenstein's Haunted House at RJB Construction in Torrington. The haunted house will open Friday, Oct. 22 for the first time since Nevin was diagnosed with cancer. Kristen Domonell Republican-American
TORRINGTON - Nobody ever does, but as Jonathan Nevin says, "I never knew I was going to have cancer."
Psychic he's not, but for nine years before his diagnosis with neck cancer in late 2007, Nevin had been making donations to the facility where he underwent treatment.
Owner of J.W. Hair Salon on New Harwinton Road, Nevin is the organizer of Frankenstein's Haunted House that opens this weekend. In a decade, the haunted house and various other fundraisers Nevin puts on with his friends each year have raised more than $200,000 for dozens of charities. The main benefactors are the Torrington Area Youth Service Bureau and, by sheer coincidence, the Charlotte Hungerford Hospital Center for Cancer Care.
The Haunted House started in 1999, years before Nevin, at age 41, got his cancer diagnosis. That fall of 2007, in the midst of orchestrating that year's haunted house, Nevin was undergoing testing to find the cause of a lump on his neck. He recalls having bone marrow taken, then putting on his Frankenstein costume that evening. About 5 feet, 5 inches tall, with piercing blue eyes, Nevin is hardly a first pick to play the towering green monster. He wears platform boots to make him look appropriately taller for the part.
A month later, he was diagnosed with neck cancer, which attacks the lymph nodes in the neck and is more common in men much older than he.
"I went to Yale, I went to Hartford, I was all over the place," said Nevin, a lifelong Torrington resident. "I chose to come back to Torrington. Not only was it closer, but there's not a person there that isn't wonderful, from the receptionist right down to your doctor and everybody in between."
Liz Weingart of Torrington, one of Nevin's friends and a client at his salon, remembers when he heard the news. "That's always a difficult time, although that time was very brief with Jonathan," Weingart said. "Then he demonstrated determination and was upbeat and he never complained about anything."
In November of that year, Nevin had surgery to remove the lump from his neck, and in December his doctor performed a procedure called neck dissection, which involves removing the lymph nodes and the surrounding tissues to prevent the cancer from spreading to other organs.
Nevin's doctors informed him that because the cancer was in the lymph nodes of his neck, it had to have developed somewhere else in his body, though they were never able to pinpoint the source. For this reason, Nevin underwent chemotherapy once a week and full radiation every day for six weeks at the Center for Cancer Care.
Cancer-free for more than two and a half years, Nevin sometimes worries that it might come back, but he doesn't let those thoughts run his life. He gets a full body scan every six months to monitor his body's tissues and gain peace of mind.
Now 43, Nevin is filled with energy and boyish excitement, not jaded by his hardship. He's always on the move, whether he's cutting hair, raising money to carry out the haunted house, or planning other charity events like the Butterfly Affair, a fundraiser for the Center for Cancer Care where cancer patients and survivors release butterflies in honor of their survival.
Nevin said he can't explain why he loves fundraising.
"I don't really know, I get myself involved," Nevin said. "Me and my friends always try to help out and have fun doing it."
Frankenstein's Haunted House opened in 1999 at Agway after the owners there asked Nevin to put on a fundraiser on their premises because they knew his cousins ran a haunted house in Barkhamsted and later in Coe Park in Torrington when Nevin was a child. He gathered a group of Halloween-loving friends and they started the tradition.
The haunted house has since moved to a much larger space in a warehouse at RJB Construction, 588 Winsted Road, where the owners "literally make way for us for a month," Nevin said. It is returning this year for the first time since Nevin's diagnosis.
"I started with the cancer center but now I give them more just because I was a patient there and I know what it costs to actually go through cancer and it could financially ruin you," Nevin said.
Diana Gath of Torrington is a longtime friend of Nevin who has helped with the haunted house since day one. She described Nevin as a "character" with a strong personality and "a vast amount of friends and acquaintances" who are always willing to help him out.
"People never say no to Jonathan," Gath said, laughing.
She's with Nevin through every step of planning, but said "it's Jonathan's way or it's no way, and that's in a good sense. Nobody can do what he does."
Planning for the haunted house begins a few months out, with Nevin gathering donations, handing out fliers and rounding up volunteers. There are typically 40 to 50 volunteers inside the haunted house and six outside. The Torrington Fire Department and the Torringford Volunteer Fire Department staff the event, and Nevin makes a donation to the volunteer department in exchange for its services. Like all the donations he makes, Nevin doesn't designate the funds, allowing the organization to decide how the money is spent.
During the monthlong process of turning RJB Construction from a warehouse to a haunted house, Nevin styles hair by day and builds and decorates by night. Gath said the layout and decorations are all conceptualized by Nevin and the product is better every year.
"He is the mastermind," Gath said. "He is Frankenstein." But unlike Mary Shelley's famous Frankenstein, Nevin doesn't just create the monsters, he creates the whole production. And with 30 rooms, mazes and hallways complete with cornstalks, strobe lights and 40 volunteer goblins, monsters and ghouls, that's no small feat.
Originally appeared 10/17/10 in the Republican-American