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Former CEO credits playing the banjo with saving his life


Keith Alessi will never forget being a boy and discovering the instrument that would eventually save his life.

“I saw The Beverly Hillbillies,” Keith smiles at the memory of hearing the TV sitcom’s banjo-played theme song for the first time. “There was a bright percussive sound that cut through the clutter that just grabbed me.”

Although it inspired Keith to start building a world-class collection of 52 banjos, he didn’t learn to play even one of them.

“Life got in the way,” Keith smiles.

The executive was working his way to the very top of the corporate ladder at multiple major companies on both sides of the border. Keith promised to make time for the banjo when he retired, which he finally did at 61.

“I resigned my job on a Monday morning,” Keith says. “And 13 days later I was told I had a 50 per cent chance of living a year.”

The cancer diagnosis seemed like a death sentence. After a lifetime of being in control, Keith felt like he had none at all.

“It totally came out of left field,” Keith recalls. “I was literally crying on a city corner.”

The former CEO responded by delegating his health care to the doctors, and chose to focus his energy on pursuing his passion for the banjo.

“It kept my mind off the things I didn’t want to think about,” Keith says he joined old-time music jams and connected with a community of fellow banjo players. “It gave me a positive thing to focus on.”

After being told he had an 85 per cent chance of dying within five years of being diagnosed, Keith’s cancer is now in remission after making music for the past eight years.

“My doctors say keep doing what you’re doing,” Keith says. “And now the banjo’s become instrumental in my healing.”

After friends suggested he share his experience to inspire others, Keith teamed up with theatre professional Erika Conway to help stage his story.

“I wasn’t thinking it would ever go anywhere that it had,” Erika says.

Although Keith had no prior acting experience, he’s spent the past few years performing his one-person show, ‘Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life’ around the world, from North America to Australia.

The production has earned multiple international awards from the UK to off-Broadway.

Keith concludes each performance with a talk-back session to connect with audience members facing similar challenges.

“He doesn’t have to be going out there and doing this,” Erika says. “The fact that he’s using his time to be so much a part of the community and give back is inspiring.”

And instead of moving to Beverly Hills like the hillbillies in the show that first inspired him, Keith is donating all the money he’s earned from the play to local theatres and cancer charities — almost $1 million and counting.

“It’s fantastic,” Keith says. “I’d rather pay it forward while I can see the impact I’m having.”

And he hopes all of us will be inspired to stop waiting for the end of our career and start living our life to the fullest now. Top Stories

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