One minute, Joe Pillitteri is throwing out one-liners, sounding like he's developing a new routine for his next act.
The next he's deadly serious, as he talks about why he works so hard at raising money for the town's annual Terry Fox Run.
Publicly he may be known best as a stand-up comic and all-around good guy, but he is also passionate about his community and generous with his time when it comes to supporting it – especially when it comes to promoting the annual run that continues on decades after Canada's national hero had to stop the run he intended to complete by running from coast to coast, before he found his cancer had returned. “I'm not going to give up,” Fox said. “But I might not make it . . . if I don't, the Marathon of Hope better continue.”
For more than a decade Joan King has volunteered her time to ensure it continues in NOTL, and Pillitteri has worked with her to raise as much money as possible from a relatively small community.
He began by gathering together a team of family and work colleagues, through his business, Lakeview Vineyard Equipment, and challenging other businesses to do the same. Each year, he set a goal of $10,000, and always seemed surprised at the generosity of those who helped him surpass his goal.
He also turned to what he knows best – how to make people laugh – and started what has become a tradition, with an annual comedy night to raise funds for the run.
Last year, he challenged his cousin Mike Pillitteri, general manager of Riverview Cellars, and between the two of them they raised $50,000 – not surprisingly, he doesn't miss an opportunity to remind Mike, all in good fun, that he raised $35,000 to Mike's $15,000, still no small accomplishment. Their $50,000 was a huge contribution to the total of $95,000 raised from NOTL's 2017 run.
The NOTL run reached a milestone in 2017 – $600,000 raised since its first event in 1991 for the Terry Fox Foundation to fund cancer research, with the Pillitteri families helping to reach that mark.
“Terry just asked for a dollar from every Canadian, and this is what we've done in Niagara-on-the-Lake,” said King.
“This is what Joe has helped to accomplish. He makes it fun, but he also takes it very seriously. He always gets emotional when he talks about Terry Fox.”
This year, the cousins are in it together as Team Pillsy, with a goal of $60,000. Joe plans to host another comedy night. Mike, more comfortable singing with a bass guitar in his hands than cracking jokes, will make an appearance with his band, The Hopyards, a collection of locals – chef Ross Midgley from Ravine Vineyards on guitar and vocals, guitarist Shawn Spiewak, Nick Serbina on lead guitar and vocals, and drummer Tim Balasiuk from Paddle Niagara. Mike describes the band as “muti-genre,” but with classic rock as its staple. They play at wineries and events around Niagara, performed at Oast Brewery for the Terry Fox run last year, and are considered a favourite at the Wednesday night supper market at The Village.
This year's show will be held at Jackson Triggs, Thursday, Sept. 6. Those who purchase tickets at the Village supper market can attend a pre-party, said Joe.
He says he expects if he “kills it on stage, with people who have never laughed so much in their lives,” in return he should be invited to sing at least one song with the Hopyards – although he freely admits he's not much of a singer.
There will also be a car wash, bake sale and touch-a-truck event at Cornerstone Church on Niagara Stone Road Aug. 25, run by student volunteers, and a lemonade stand run by Mike's two sons, Lucas and Leo, at Riverview Cellars Sept. 1, 1 to 4 p.m., with all proceeds going towards Team Pillsy's goal.
“Our minds are racing every day thinking of ways to get to $60,000,” said Joe, who promises to come up with more new ideas before the September run.
“There will be no stone left unturned. We'll even offer to race horse and carriages down Queen Street,” he jokes.
The two men are challenging others to step and up and form a team, “or admit defeat and join our team, in any capacity,” says Joe. “We'll take all the help we can get.”
The Pillitteri cousins both consider the run a family affair, involving their kids in fundraising events, having them participate in the run, but most importantly, ensuring they understand why Terry Fox is a national hero.
They see the run as an opportuity to get kids involved and pass on the right message.
That seems especially important this year, Joe says, “in light of all the world events right now. There are so many dark clouds out there, it helps to think about what Terry accomplished from the moment he began his run to the day he passed away, and what continues today. That gives me hope for sure.”
Joe often finishes one of his comedy routines with a plea for a cause, because usually the event he is hosting is to raise money for something important to him. Often, he ends with a Terry Fox quote — he's repeated them so many times, he knows most by heart.
One of his favourites, he says, is a reminder to be passionate about something that is worthwhile: “If I died, I would die happy because I was doing what I wanted to do. How many people could say that? I went out and did 15 push-ups in the road and took off. I want to set an example that will never be forgotten.”
Joan King and the Pillitteri cousins are passionate about continuing Terry's fight, and they too are setting an example for others to follow.
“We don't do this for name recognition or for ourselves,” said Joe. “We have the same outlook on life, and the same goal – let's make this bigger than we ever thought it could be, for Terry Fox, and for all the right reasons.”
This year's run is Sunday, Sept. 16, beginning as always at Simcoe Park, registration at 9:30 a.m., run at 10 a.m. There is no charge for registration and no minimum pledge. For more information go to terryfox.org or to order a T-shirt call King at 905-358-4358. She will be on Queen Street Saturday, Aug. 11 during the Peach Celebration selling T-shirts for $20.