Blind and Partially Deaf Man Becomes Accomplished Pianist After Receiving Keyboard from a Stranger
"Something about that kid, man. I saw him and said, 'This kid's got a spark.' It was greatness, it was an aura. He has it," Glenn Palmedo-Smith says of Brian Horberg
A stranger completely changed the life of one little boy who was blind and partially deaf after their serendipitous encounter in the grocery store led the man to give the child an electronic keyboard — beginning what has become an unbelievable career as a professional pianist.
Brian Horberg was about 9 years old when he left a lasting impression on California-based author Glenn Palmedo-Smith. The two met in a Danbury, Connecticut Stop and Shop in the 90s, while Palmedo-Smith was traveling to Norwich to do research for a book he was writing.
Following their memorable chat, Palmedo-Smith tracked down the boy, who was born blind and deaf in his right ear, and presented him with a 66-key keyboard that had pre-programmed songs.
It was that random act of kindness that ultimately led Horberg, now 30, to pursue a career in music and become an accomplished pianist.
Today, Horberg owns his own music business and performs at nursing homes, senior centers, hospitals, and weddings around Connecticut — all while charming everyone he comes in contact with, his Life Skills Instructor Mary Casagrande tells PEOPLE.
“I adore Brian,” she says. “It’s an honor to work with him and to see how not only his music but his life touches people.”
“He has a way of touching people that I’ve never really seen before,” Casagrande continues. “He’s unassuming. He doesn’t try very hard to make a difference in people’s lives, but he does… he just has everybody in the palm of his hand. It’s an incredible gift.”
Casagrande has been working with Horberg for six years through a nonprofit organization called Ability Beyond, which provides a wide range of services for people who live with disabilities that inhibit their daily activities.
She tells PEOPLE that Horberg’s family still reminisces on his fateful meeting with Palmedo-Smith, with whom they haven’t spoken since he gifted the keyboard and a signed copy of the biography he was working on, Discovering Ellis Ruley.
“I’ve never understood it,” she says, adding that the family tried to contact him in recent years but had been unsuccessful after he moved from the residence he provided in a letter.
“His family calls Glenn Smith an angel,” Casagrande explains. “I kinda believe that. Why else? Brian has blossomed into this pianist who people adore… I don’t think Glenn was even aware at the time of what he was doing. He really started something.”
PEOPLE was able to find Palmedo-Smith, now 66. A semi-retired filmmaker now living in Gilbert, Arizona, Palmedo-Smith expressed his disbelief when contacted this week about the encounter with Horberg, close to three decades later.
“I’m pinching myself, I can’t even believe it!” he tells PEOPLE. “Something about that kid, man. I saw him and said, ‘This kid’s got a spark.’ It was greatness, it was an aura. He has it… I’m just an angel’s assistant.”
On that fateful day in the ’90s, Palmedo-Smith says he had stopped at the store for a pre-road trip snack when he was approached by Horberg in the checkout line.
“He was so precocious and reaching out and not shy,” Palmedo-Smith recalls. “I just thought, ‘This kid’s special.'”
As he was leaving the store, Palmedo-Smith noticed the local fire department was outside holding a holiday raffle with prizes. Wanting to do something kind for the boy, the author says he bought Horberg three raffle tickets in hopes that he would win.
When he didn’t, Palmedo-Smith took matters into his own hands. After giving Horberg’s family his contact information, the author went out to the store and randomly purchased a keyboard.
Days later, he pleaded with the fire department to make a special exception and deliver the gift via firetruck on his behalf.
“I didn’t want to present it myself… I wanted him to have a sense of ‘I’m lucky, somebody is on my side, somebody is watching from above,'” Palmedo-Smith explains, noting that the department ultimately said no.
With his proposal turned down, Palmedo-Smith eventually delivered the keyboard himself, meeting with Horberg’s family at his Connecticut home to watch the excited boy open his present and put it together.
Despite only being there for 90 minutes, Palmedo-Smith says it was clear that once Horberg started playing and mimicking the keyboard’s pre-programmed songs, he was “a natural.”
His talents only increased from there, as Casagrande tells PEOPLE that Horberg has perfect pitch, can now master a new song after only two or three times of hearing it, and has nearly 300 songs, across all genres, memorized — all without practicing.
“It’s hard to get him to practice because it comes so naturally to him and so easily that I think he almost takes it for granted,” Casagrande explains. “When other people see him, they say, ‘Oh, I wish I could do that.'”
Currently, Horberg performs at 13 local senior centers and nursing homes four times a week and is even booked through 2020 — something the pianist tells PEOPLE he feels incredibly lucky to do.
“I am glad I get to make people happy,” he says. “It’s important to help people be happy. We should all try to do that. I’m very blessed to have this chance.”
Though Horberg admits that he doesn’t vividly remember the encounter with Palmedo-Smith, he recognizes how big of an impact he had on his life.
“I don’t remember much about meeting Glenn Smith,” Horberg says. “[But] I would like Glenn to know what he started. I was just a kid then. My life is different now. I’ve grown in my music and really accomplished something — I’d like him to know that.”
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As for Palmedo-Smith, who says he performs random acts of kindness annually, he never expected his small gesture to turn into a “clairvoyant destiny.”
“I’d like to be able to say I knew it all along, but I had no idea,” he admits. “It was literally something as simple as, ‘I’ve gotta do something for this kid who came out with a bad deck of cards to make him feel like his luck was changing.'”
“I like to think the message is you too can do the same thing. It doesn’t have to be big, it just has to be touching,” he continues. “If we all did that, it’d be a hell of a world.”
PEOPLE has shared Palmedo-Smith’s contact information with Horberg and his family.