ABQ resident donates grand piano to Easter Island - Albuquerque Journal

ABQ resident donates grand piano to Easter Island

Loralee Cooley, 79, stands beside her Steinway Grand piano in her West Side home while waiting for movers to pick it up and take it to Los Angeles. Cooley is donating the piano, which has been part of her life for more than 60 years, to the School of Music and Arts of Rapa Nui on Easter Island in the South Pacific. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Standing outside her West Side home last week, Loralee Cooley watched the two men load the Steinway Grand M piano, part of her life for more than 60 years, onto a truck bound for Los Angeles.

A bittersweet moment, for sure. Cooley said she had thought she might cry. But she didn’t. She couldn’t.

“I am just overjoyed,” she said. “I am so pleased it’s going to be used by people who appreciate it.”

Cooley, 79, donated her beloved piano to the School of Music and Arts of Rapa Nui on Easter Island.

Yes, that Easter Island, the one in the South Pacific Ocean, the island famous for more than 900 gigantic stone statues created by early Rapa Nui people.

Does that seem like an odd destination for a Steinway Grand? Cooley doesn’t think so.

“It’s going to be where it is going to be enjoyed,” she said.

The right thing

Over the years, Cooley and the Steinway traveled around the country – Chattanooga, Tennessee; Casa Grande, Arizona; McLean, Virginia; Atlanta; Anderson, South Carolina; Pampa, Texas; 10 states in all – with Cooley’s husband, Edwin, a Presbyterian minister. She taught piano lessons and played piano in churches.

“I have been in church music since seventh grade in our little Baptist church in Illinois,” she said.

Edwin died in 2014. Four years later, Cooley moved to Albuquerque, a city she and her husband had enjoyed visiting during their life together.

The house here, just west of Coors Boulevard, was a good fit for Cooley, her dog and the Steinway. She liked that there are wall niches in which she can display the pastor figurines she had collected as gifts for her husband.

Movers transfer Loralee Cooley’s Steinway Grand from her West Side home into a van. It will go first to Los Angeles, then to Chile and then to a music school on Easter Island. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

In April 2021, she watched a TV interview with concert pianist Mahani Teave on “CBS Sunday Morning.” Teave is the daughter of an American mother and a father who is from Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island.

Easter Island is about the size of Washington, D.C. It is 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile and is a territory of Chile. Teave spent her early childhood years there and started taking piano lessons on what may have been the only piano on the island at the time. The “CBS Sunday Morning” segment told how she had returned to Easter Island a decade ago and helped build the School of Music and Arts.

Asked by the “CBS Sunday Morning” interviewer if she hoped to find the next great Easter Island concert pianist, Teave said what she wanted to do was pass on to the island’s children the values and virtues – perseverance, teamwork and respect – that comes with learning to play a musical instrument.

Teave concluded the interview by expressing the school’s need for grand pianos.

That hit home with Cooley.

“A light bulb went off,” she said. “‘Well, there sits mine.’ I decided that if I can get my piano from here to Easter Island, that’s the right thing to do.”

It took slightly more than a year, but Cooley’s Steinway Grand is on its way.

‘Just one chord’

The day after the Steinway was trucked away from her house, Cooley was seated on a sofa in her living room, her 10-year-old black standard poodle, Rosie, settled in comfortably between Cooley and a visitor.

A few feet away, against the opposite wall, was a Baldwin Acrosonic, a spinet piano less that 40 inches high that dates back to the 1950s. She bought it from its previous owner in Albuquerque two years ago. Cooley likely could not live in a house that had no piano in it. She started taking piano lessons when she was 4.

“I was picking things out on the piano by ear,” she said. “Mom was afraid I would not learn to read music if I did not have lessons.”

Cooley remembers when she and the Steinway Grand M piano met.

It was in the summer of 1961, just after she had graduated from Charleston High School in Charleston, Illinois. Cooley was about to major in piano at Eastern Illinois University, her hometown institution of higher learning, just two blocks from the house in which she lived with her parents.

Alice Thomas, Cooley’s longtime piano teacher, decided it was time for Loralee to upgrade from the small Wurlitzer Grand she had been playing since she was in fourth or fifth grade.

“The four of us – me, Mrs. Thomas, my mother and father – drove to Chicago to the Lyon & Healy music store,” Cooley said. “They had a whole floor of Steinways.”

Steinway calls the Model M its Studio Grand piano. At just 5 feet, 7 inches long, it is a manageable size for houses and music studios but it is also admired for its rich sound and exquisite response.

The Model M that would soon become Cooley’s musical partner, stood out on that crowded showroom floor because of its beautiful reddish walnut finish, a color unusual in Steinways. Cooley said it was made between 1959 and 1961 and had been ordered by a man who decided he did not want it.

From the first time she touched it in 1961, Loralee Cooley knew this Steinway Grand piano was special. Here, she plays it for the last time as she waits for movers who will take it to Los Angeles, the first stop on the piano’s journey to Easter Island. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

She played every piano in the showroom before she sat down at the red walnut beauty. She had avoided it, she said, because it was so elegant she was sure her family could not afford it. Her mechanic father owned a car and truck garage, and her mother was the bookkeeper for the business.

“I played just one chord,” she said. “I had never played a piano like that. It had a touch and a response of the keys you usually only find in larger pianos.”

The piano’s price tag was $3,200, about $31,000 in today’s dollars. Her father called his bank.

A good future

Cooley was a member of the choir at Eastern Illinois University and played cello in the symphony. And, of course, she played piano as part of her studies and in student recitals.

After graduating from Eastern Illinois, she went to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, to do graduate work in church music.

“I was looking at a career in directing, choral arrangements and church administration,” she said.

She met Edwin at the seminary and they were married in 1967.

In 2007, after a few decades of cross-country travel, Cooley had her Steinway completely renovated in Amarillo, Texas. The man who did the job estimated the piano was worth $55,000 to $60,000 when the restoration was completed.

Cooley was not sure what would happen to the Steinway after she was gone, but she knew what she did not want to happen.

“Mrs. Thomas, my music teacher, donated a very good piano to a church fellowship hall,” Cooley said. “In sanctuaries, pianos are well taken care of. But in fellowship halls, they are used as a shelf, a place to keep dishes. People put drinks and pastries and homework on it.”

When she saw the “CBS Sunday Morning” interview with Teave, Cooley envisioned a future in which her Steinway Grand could do good work and be cherished.

She contacted Teave’s agent who was receptive to Cooley’s offer to donate the piano but had no idea how to make that work.

But the word was out. Teave’s mother called Cooley from Chile. And then, earlier this month, a Los Angeles piano repair and restoration service got in touch to make arrangements to pick up the Steinway.

Happy memories

For months it seemed like nothing was happening, that maybe nothing would ever happen. And then it all happened in a hurry.

Suddenly the piano service van from Los Angeles was in Cooley’s driveway and Obed Vazquez and Luis Perez were securing the Steinway Grand in the vehicle’s cargo area.

Perez, a piano technician and mechanic, is originally from Santiago, Chile, and makes occasional service calls to Easter Island.

Loralee Cooley thought she might cry when parting with her treasured Steinway Grand. Instead, she smiles while remembering the many years she has shared with the piano. Cooley was prompted to donate the piano to the School of Music and Arts of Rapa Nui on Easter Island after seeing a “CBS Sunday Morning” television interview with concert pianist Mahani Teave, who spent her early childhood years on the island and helped build the school a decade ago. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

Vazquez said Cooley’s piano will be inspected and tended to in Los Angeles. Then it will be shipped to Chile and from Chile to Easter Island. He said it would be about three months before it reaches the island.

When Vazquez and Perez walked into Cooley’s house, even before they looked at the piano, they handed her a phone. On it, was a FaceTime call from Teave.

“She said, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,'” Cooley said. “She looked so enthusiastic, so happy, so radiant.

“I’m not missing my piano, but I am remembering it and how nice it was to play. And all I have to do to be sure my piano is going to the right place is remember Mahani’s face.”

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