NORTH TONAWANDA – Donna Zellner Neal, as volunteer executive director of the North Tonawanda History Museum, has made the success of the museum her top priority for the past 10 years. But when she found herself facing a diagnosis of a rare form of intestinal cancer more than four months ago, she found others had stepped up and made her their priority.
Neal completed her second and final regimen of chemotherapy a few weeks ago and said that despite feeling like “she has been run over by a truck,” she is expected to make a full recovery.
Neal has been openly sharing her trials and tribulations through email with the approximately 7,000 members of the museum and despite having to close the museum’s doors to the public since January, she has continued to work at home, behind the scenes over the past three months.
“That’s how I deal with the pain. I keep busy,” she said.
Neal, who is temporarily in a wheelchair which donated by Community Missions of Niagara Fallas, planned to be back to work this past week in advance of the museum’s popular used book sale which was held Saturday. Usually held in February, the book sale was postponed to March while Neal was receiving radiation and chemotherapy. The museum at 54 Webster St., which has been closed since Jan. 10, will reopen to the public for regular hours Tuesday.
Her recent cancer diagnosis is the latest in a list of illnesses, which range from collapsed vertebrae and back surgeries to a thyroid condition, but she said when she found herself facing reflux issues that had her popping 30 to 40 Tums a day, she knew something was not right.
Neal has been very open with the diagnosis of what she calls “my little bugger” and thanked volunteers and supporters of the “History Museum Family” and her seven children for getting her through the past three months of treatment.
Volunteers, along with her family, took her to Roswell Park Cancer Institute for treatments and coordinated the wheelchair donation so she can get back to work.
Elaine Timm, treasurer of the museum’s board, said, “There are people who are volunteers or have been volunteers, who know her and appreciate everything she’s done. They know she’ll keep going at it so they want to help.”
Timm said Neal’s attitude is a combination of “a pit bull and the Energizer Bunny.”
“She’s been a consistent part of the museum all along,” Timm noted. “She took it on originally and will not let it fail. She just keeps going, despite all types of roadblocks.”
Demelt Shaw, president of the museum board, agreed, saying they have a strong force of volunteers, but Neal has really been at the forefront getting the museum started and keeping it going.
“Donna’s love is the museum,” Shaw said. “In a true sense, she’s used her treasure and health on the museum, which is noble in a way, but we are encouraging her to take care of herself. But stepping back is not something Donna can do.”
Neal who helped move the museum in the past 10 years from a storage site in a school to the current location on Webster Street with 10,000 square feet of display space. She said for 10 years her children saw her spend time on the museum – sometimes at their expense – but after watching her go through cancer treatment, they wanted to publicly thank the members, supporters and volunteers of the museum for the dedicated support of their mother.
“We have, in the past five months, been totally overwhelmed with the realization that the mother, grandmother and great-grandmother we all know and love has also inspired the members, supporters and volunteers of the North Tonawanda History Museum into not just following her leadership in its development, but has also allowed them to really know and care about the woman who has been our lifelong inspiration,” her family said in a letter of thanks to the community.
“The three volunteers who helped me have been wonderful and my kids realized that they were helping take care of mom. They saw the cards and the letters that were coming in. Some of the supporters have actually sent me gift cards for groceries and cash for expenses and money to keep the museum going. I wasn’t surprised.
“They all came forward to help the museum in the first place. I knew what we were doing for members and supporters. There’s over 7,000 of them. Most of them I know them as friends. They told me what they wanted and I was the conductor putting it all together giving them want they wanted.”
“Many told me I have given 200 percent. I know them and that is what has kept me going,” she said. “I knew I had this wonderful support base.”
Both Neal and Shaw said the next step in taking the museum forward will be to obtain grants so it can hire a full-time executive director to take the reins from Neal. Neal said she is 74 and expects to be going strong for several decades, but has trained her 32-year-old son John to take her place if they can hire a paid director.