LeClaire Couple Pours Grief Into Powerful Advocacy for Music, Mentorship and Suicide Prevention
Saturday in the Arts is a weekly feature covering a trend, subject, event or personality of local interest. It runs every Saturday morning on your site for the best entertainment and arts coverage in the area, QuadCities.com!
Music certainly can change lives, but unfortunately it couldn’t save the life of Pierce Cordle.
The intelligent, driven, happy 22-year-old guy – who played trumpet since 5th grade – was working a job he loved, in a Peoria hospital emergency room, and was planning to go to med school to fulfill his dream of becoming a doctor. But seemingly out of nowhere on Dec. 8, 2016, that afternoon (in the middle of a shift),
Pierce called his mother (who lived outside Chicago), very distraught, though nothing wrong had happened on or off his job as an ER scribe.
“He first walked the hallways inside, then eventually made his way outside. As he walked, instead of his brain returning to its normal calm state; it continued to misfire and flooded his mind with irrational thoughts,” his mother Kristi relates on their website, piercespromise.com. “A state of panic took over; and despite Pierce’s knowledge of human physiology; he was unable to stop it. With his last shreds of rational thought, Pierce called his Mom for help. He was confused, not understanding what was happening to him and not able to process the fact that whatever it was, that it would stop. His brain wasn’t allowing his brilliant mind to hear his Mom’s voice assuring him that he was going to be OK, and that his brain could be fixed.”
Instead, the remainder of Pierce’s rational thought slipped away and he walked off the edge of the top of the ER parking garage, to his death. He was on the phone with Kristi at the time.
“He loved his job very much,” she said in a recent interview about the registered nonprofit she and her husband Jeff formed in 2018, Pierce’s Promise, which has two clear goals – “to equip and empower young people to learn the power and love of music and to raise awareness surrounding the risk of sudden suicide in young adults.” The Cordles are strong supporters of both Davenport-based River Music Experience and QC Rock Academy, through financial donations, and gifts of musical instruments and equipment.
“It wasn’t immediately clear on the phone that he was in life-threatening trouble,” Kristi recalled about that fateful day five years ago. “He just seemed distraught, upset and not making a ton of sense. He was upset about something. Certainly I had no reason to suspect; he had no previous history of mental illness, and certainly there was no reason. I was very concerned, of course.”
“My attempts on the phone were to help try understand what was wrong,” she said. “He never really ever gave me any clarity as to what was wrong or what happened. His brain wasn’t working properly.”
There was an in-depth investigation and autopsy after his death. They didn’t find anything abnormal in Pierce’s brain, she said. “We definitely had waited anxiously to find out if there was something anatomically wrong, or if there was something that would explain how on earth this could happen, but there wasn’t anything.”
They spoke to the police, who spoke to personnel at the hospital, and the Cordles talked to people on shift with Pierce the day he died. “Everyone was as puzzled as were, including the physician he was partnered with that day,” Kristi said, noting there wasn’t a case that Pierce was upset about.
They have never heard of another suicide like this, where there were absolutely no warning signs, no mental illness, or side effects from medication, she said.
“He spent his days with medical professionals. He was never alone,” Kristi said. “It was hard for us at first to find common ground with other people. We certainly share a loss. But it took us a while to find our place in the suicide awareness-prevention arena, because we felt like ours was not a situation we felt anyone could relate to.”
“He was just a working member of society – he wasn’t in counseling,” Jeff said. “He wasn’t under medication. All these things; he must have had a history. No. He must have did this. No. It was just a struggle to fit that. That took us some time.”
The Cordles have been involved in supporting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and the local “Out of the Darkness” fundraising walks in the Q-C.
“We’ve actually found that sharing that study, doing a lot of research, are we the only people this has ever happened to?” Kristi asked. “The answer is no. It’s not the type of suicide death people talk about the most necessarily. But suicide can happen without warning, without illness, without any risk factors at all. So there’s power in sharing our story, because Pierce was just like everybody else. His suicide death isn’t any different from any other suicide death, in that it can’t be singled out in a group of risk factors or checked boxes.
“It literally can happen to anyone, without any pre-warning or clue for family or friends or loved ones to be able to intervene,” she said.
“You can’t prevent that which you can’t imagine,” Jeff said.
In May 2016, Pierce graduated Magna Cum Laude from Marquette University in Milwaukee with a degree in Bio-Medical Science. By that December, he had an interview already scheduled with his first-choice medical school (University of Illinois in Peoria). His work supervisors raved about his job performance. He had friends and family who loved him beyond words, and he loved them all back. “He had the quickest wit and made people laugh like no one else we knew,” the Pierce’s Promise says. “He loved music and the Minnesota Vikings; and was an accomplished trumpet player. He was firmly on the path to the rest of his life, and no one doubted that he would absolutely succeed.”
Pierce was known for his passion for the trumpet at which he excelled, Kristi said, noting his love for music was clear as part of the Huntley High School Band. He continued into college where he treasured performing as part of the Marquette University Band Program. While there, he was the recipient of the Nicholas J. Contorno Award for Outstanding Musicianship and the Student Commitment to Excellence Award.
Making sure his life and death matter
Kristi is a newly-retired registered nurse and Jeff works as a computer analyst. Their other child is a 29-year-old daughter, Paige (two years older than Pierce), who’s due to have a baby any day.
Pierce started playing trumpet in 5th grade. Almost of all his friends were through music and band. In high school, he did jazz band, marching band, concert band and orchestra. At Marquette, Pierce played in wind ensemble, orchestra, pep band and jazz band. “He loved it,” Kristi said.
Pierce was buried in Princeton, Iowa, surrounded by family, since Kristi grew up on a large farm in Princeton. There was a cemetery that overlooked her family’s farm, and that’s where Pierce is. She graduated from North Scott High School in Eldridge. They moved back to the area in March 2017, settling in LeClaire.
“The other reason we did that was, our daughter being in Ankeny (near Des Moines), we were not comfortable being that far away from her,” Kristi said. “Us moving to the Quad-Cities cut our distance from her in half.”
Pierce’s death profoundly affected Paige as well.
“They were obviously close, as the only siblings,” Kristi said. “It was devastating, for her in a way no one else could understand because she was his only sibling and he was hers.”
“It never goes away, as she’s getting ready to have a baby,” Jeff said. “The baby’s not going to have an uncle.” She got married three years ago at Davenport’s Modern Woodmen Park, and it was very bittersweet.
“Somebody described it as the saddest happy occasion ever,” Jeff said
They started Pierce’s Promise in 2018. “We did it to honor Pierce’s life and to make a difference,” Kristi said. “We never wanted to do it in a way that wasn’t genuinely authentic. It was very important to us that if we were going to accept donations – of instruments or money – we could always tell people exactly where it went and how it was helping another child. We waited until we were ready to make that happen. Again, we started very small, but we do it ourselves. We don’t pay anything in staff costs or salaries or anything like that. One hundred percent goes to the actual mission.”
To date, they have donated 92 instruments, 172 professional music lessons, and $3,300 to support local music education programs. The suicide prevention they can do at no cost, she said. They love that people can donate instruments, in a way that doesn’t require cash.
“We want to talk about Pierce’s death and tell his story, because his death needs to matter,” Kristi said. “But most importantly, we want to honor his life. He was so much more than how he died.”
“The manner in which he died doesn’t define him; his life defines him,” Jeff said. “We struggled with that.”
Music is life-giving, and they felt they wanted to be life-affirming, Kristi said. “RME, they do phenomenal work, but they’re also phenomenal people. It was really easy to feel comfortable forming that kind of relationship with them. They have helped us so much, and they not only care so much about the importance of their work, but they care about us and about Pierce. They believe as much in what we do as we believe in what they do. That was really powerful for us.”
They had no intention of recreating RME programs, but just to be able for them to grow their existing programs, she said. “We can plug in the gaps and remove any barriers that could be removed with this funding, or the technical things with instruments. That has worked out really well. They do really amazing work and are amazing people.”
They began by supporting the RME’s “Let’s Band Together” program, which loans donated instruments to area students free of charge. The Cordles get them play ready and support private lessons for any student who needs them.
“Obviously last year, with Covid, nobody was able to much of anything to get instruments into the hands of kids, or providing in-person lessons,” Kristi said. “School bands were obviously not able to do much of anything, so it was a year of mostly waiting and getting ready to do much, much more when things reopened.”
RME was thinking for a long time about launching the new “InTune” program, and approached the couple, since their two missions aligned so closely. “They knew we wanted to grow with them, so they approached to see if we would be a primary funder for the first three years of the InTune program,” she said. “We wholeheartedly supported everything that they wanted to do and we were thrilled to get the opportunity to be able to do that with them, and be able to provide the funding for them to get it started. We like that they didn’t want to start the
program without the guarantee that it would continue.
“That was definitely a goal they had that we shared,” Kristi said. “That’s not to say we won’t continue to fund it longer than three years, but we definitely have committed the full three years to keep that program going, and I know that along the way, during the three years, they will continue to grow it and get into more sites, to work with more youth.”
The “InTune” program — which launched last week — is rooted in “the belief that music is a powerful way to get in tune with our identities, build confidence, provide an emotional connection, and build a positive path forward in life,” according to RME.
It’s a program rooted in providing “intentional, student-led, music education in spaces that historically have not had access to it,” RME program director Brianna Hobbs said recently. The goal is to build a sustainable network of
teaching artists whose role will be to develop programming that provides:
- Relevancy — reflective of the student’s needs, interests, and cultural background.
- Representation — investing in leaders that reflect the kids in appearance and life experience to build trust and help them envision their musical path as they grow.
- Mentorship — consistent, healthy relationships for kids to rely on and learn with.
Specific activities at each site will vary depending on the interest and needs of the student participants. RME has a variety of instruments at the ready, so no matter what musical path a student wishes to explore, they can provide them the tools to do so. The program is a weekly format (typically during after-school hours) of one hour.
The pilot program is based at two sites the first year — Project Renewal, 510 Warren St., Davenport, and TMBC at Lincoln Resource Center, 318 E. 7th St., Davenport, and local singer Dwayne Hodges (of 10 of Soul) led the first one at Project Renewal.
“The most significant impact Pierce’s Promise has in our community is supporting the distribution of instruments and engagement of music education to kids with the least number of barriers,” Hobbs said. “Without their instrument donations and coordination, the RME’s Let’s Band Together program would not reach nearly as many schools and families in the community. In addition to that, their financial support to our InTune program ensures music enrichment that is relevant and exciting is reaching kids in spaces familiar to them.
“Kristi and Jeff have a deep understanding of the role music can play in people’s lives,” she said. “The partnership we share with them is rooted in shared values and a shared vision of access to music without barriers. Pierce’s Promise has been a crucial part of building our InTune and Let’s Build Together programs as the Cordles recognized the opportunity to work together to collectively have a greater impact. They are dedicated supporters and volunteers that understand the impact RME has and do everything they can to keep it moving forward.
“Both organizations are focused on empowering students by providing access to music, may it be through music enrichment or through providing them with the instruments they need to learn,” Hobbs (who started with RME in June 2021) said. “Beyond that, we have a shared value of accomplishing that mission by breaking down the barriers that cause exclusion in the first place.
“Kristi and Jeff at their core are truly wonderful people,” she added. “The first time I met them, I was incredibly inspired by their passion and drive. The loss of their son, Pierce, is devastating and their decision to take such heartbreak and build an organization dedicated to suicide prevention while sharing the love of music is beautiful. The Cordles understand the impact music has on people. They understand the intrinsic values of connection and exploration music provides and their decision to mobilize their networks to ensure each kid can access music is such an amazing partnership to be a part of. We’re so grateful for the partnership we share with them.”
Getting InTune for at least three years
Both “Let’s Band Together” and “InTune” serve students who typically would not be able to afford instruments or lessons, and offer them easily accessible ways to play music and have positive, adult mentors in their lives, Kristi said.
“Any access barrier that a student may have, we want to be able to overcome that barrier and get them access,” she said. “Our goal through Pierce’s Promise is very focused on removing any barriers and making sure every student who has an interest in music in any way has access. That kind of aligns very closely with what RME is doing. Let’s Band Together is more the actual instruments and the lessons. While they do educational programming, they don’t have that mentorship piece, in building relationships with those students.”
Some schools don’t get funding support for music and don’t have instruments to be able to lend for students, she said. And many of those students are in families that can’t afford the rental costs for instruments. “They don’t have access to the actual instruments, so by default, they’re not able to participate,” Kristi said. “That’s a barrier, and RME has relationships with a lot of the local schools in the Quad-Cities and teachers go to them with their instrumentation needs. RME tries to fill those with Let’s Band Together, and we’ve been able to provide a lot of
Jeff said they started small, with word of mouth, seeking donated instruments. Part of “Pierce’s Promise” is to make sure those instruments are ready to play, such as making sure the relevant instruments have reeds or valve oil, and are clean and in good shape (at times requiring repair). The way they’re able to do that is through a best friend of Pierce, who opened a music store and provides those instrument services.
“He gets a lot of instruments brought to him,” Jeff said, noting the business is called The Instrument Barn, in Huntley, Ill., where the Cordles lived several years. It’s a far northwest Chicago suburb, and Pierce graduated from Huntley High School. They transport instruments back and forth from that store, and the Cordles pay to get them play-ready, and distribute them to RME.
“We’ll take anybody’s instrument out of anybody’s closet or basement,” Kristi said. “If it’s something where people are just done, we’ll take anything.” They haven’t established relationships with Q-C music stores yet.
The Cordles are proud to support InTune for at least its first three years, because in addition to music, “that’s literally making a difference in kids’ lives and there’s nothing more important,” Kristi said.
With the mentorship aspect of InTune, they’re literally pairing suicide prevention in that program.
“Mentorship helps mental health, without question,” Kristi said. “That’s not lost on us either. We would add a layer of support, if they felt they needed to do more with mental health in that program, we would certainly be supportive of that too. It just started, and it’s already being received so well by the kids.”
They have some volunteers who work with Pierce’s Promise, such as the recent “Out of the Darkness” walk for AFSP.
They hosted an Oct. 2 concert at the Redstone Room, with Chicago Farmer, and those proceeds will help support InTune, Kristi said. They’re matching every dollar up to $15,000 for the RME fall campaign. “Our goal is to not stop at three years,” she said of InTune. “The more funds we raise along the way, and help them raise, will continue that program.”
The RME has raised about $9,000 toward their $40,000 fall campaign goal, and you can see a short video the Cordles made for it HERE. They also sponsored the RME Live@Five event on Sept. 17.
“They understand what it takes to provide access to music and they’re dedicated to filling in the gaps necessary to make it happen,” Hobbs of RME said of choosing them to record a campaign video. “We hope those that view the video will gain a deeper understanding of the programming RME is dedicated to and the important role Pierce’s Promise plays in ensuring our programming is impactful.”
Helping QC Rock Academy
They’re also supporting QC Rock Academy in Davenpor (which also works with local students), more in donating tools and musical equipment, such as amplifiers, cords, cables, and covers.
“The little things that just cost,” Jeff said. “The little things that cost, that nobody thinks about, like a wire. It’s $25, but if you need 10 of
them, it adds up. We were able to do that for them. Most of their kids have the access, they have the guitar or the drum set. They just serve a little different population.”
“If there’s a greater need identified by them, we certainly would help them with that,” Kristi said.
Greg Hipskind, the program director at QCRA, is equally grateful for their help.
“They are able to help kids and families with financial assistance for lessons and can even help
out with instruments when needed,” he said recently. “They’ve acquired quite a few instruments that need kids to make music with.”
“I met the Cordles about a year ago. They are an amazing couple and were so giving,” he said. “As for everyone, 2020 was a tough year for us at the Rock Academy, both mentally and financially. We were in need of some equipment upgrades and a few small instruments. They were more than generous with the list of things we mentioned needing. They’ve also help out with some students that needed financial assistance to keep on their musical journey. We are all about giving kids the opportunity to play music. We all know how much learning and instrument and playing music can be a powerful tool and bring enjoyment to not just yourself but others.
“They are an amazing couple that have experienced one of the most heartbreaking things a parent can face,” Hipskind said of the Cordles. “Keeping Pierce’s name and spirit alive with this program will make a difference to countless amounts of kids in the area for years and years to come. We hope to keep doing things with Pierce’s Promise and spreading the love to everyone that can use the help.”
Working to stop suicide
In 2019, 47,511 Americans died by suicide (according to American Foundation for Suicide Prevention)– nearly 16 times more than all who died in the Sept. 11 attacks. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans age 10 to 34.
The Cordles want others to know that it’s possible still to stop suicide, and to start the conversation with their own kids. “If you have any feelings or instincts, that something seems off – anything – don’t be afraid to ask or have that conversation,” Kristi said. “I can assure you that we never had the conversation with either one of our kids about – hey, if you have feelings you don’t understand, if you feel like you’re
struggling in a way you can’t describe, say something.”
When it was too late for Pierce and what she feared would happen did happen, Kristi called 911. “There wasn’t anything anyone could have done that could have saved him,” she said.
“I wasn’t certain; you can’t be certain. You try to do everything you can,” she said of the call. “What I wish I would have done, was call 911 immediately when I heard from him. I wish; the bottom line was no one in our family had any reason to suspect this could be a possibility. That wasn’t in my brain even while I was on the phone.”
“Yes, Pierce died from suicide. But it was not a choice, it was a tragedy,” their website says. “He didn’t wake up that day knowing it was his last; and he certainly didn’t choose to die. Suicide is complex and misunderstood. It can absolutely happen without warning, in young people who are otherwise healthy and happy. We will never know if there is anything that could have prevented the tragedy that happened to Pierce, but we know for sure that remaining silent about it helps no one. Us included. This can truly happen to any family, to anyone’s child. We have chosen to share our tragedy in the hopes of it helping others. And to do all we can to start an honest conversation about suicide death.”
Hobbs also is moved by the impact of their advocacy regarding suicide awareness and the teaching the complexities of it.
“That was too painful for us,” Kristi said, noting the main speaker, activist Kevin Hines, who attempted suicide by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, and survived. “Just the nature of his story. We know his story, and that wasn’t something that we could just as people can hear, because it’s just too close to Pierce’s story. I think it was a tremendous event and I have no doubt that it was very powerful.”
“They do great work, and their message was phenomenal,” she said of the organizations. To donate to their group, visit www.piercespromise.com/donations.