L.I. teacher who raised mil­lions for ALS dies

New York Daily News - - NEWS - Christo­pher Pen­der­gast (l. and r.) meets with for­mer Mets and Yan­kees pitcher David Cone at a 2005 fundrais­ing gala. Pen­der­gast, a Long Is­land teacher who turned a Lou Gehrig’s Dis­ease di­ag­no­sis into a cam­paign to raise aware­ness and fund re­search, died f

Christo­pher Pen­der­gast, a Long Is­land teacher who turned a dreaded Lou Gehrig’s Dis­ease di­ag­no­sis into a decades-long cam­paign to raise aware­ness and fund re­search, died from the ill­ness on Wed­nes­day. He was 71.

Pen­der­gast was the driv­ing force be­hind the ALS Ride for Life, an an­nual wheel­chair ride across Long Is­land that has raised more than $10 mil­lion for re­search, pa­tient and care­giver ser­vices, and ed­u­ca­tion about the neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive dis­ease, for­mally known as amy­otrophic lat­eral scle­ro­sis.

Pen­der­gast’s fam­ily con­firmed his death. He had been on home hospice care for sev­eral days and was sur­rounded by loved ones in his fi­nal mo­ments. The dis­ease took his abil­ity to speak about a year ago, but his mind re­mained sharp and he com­mu­ni­cated through an eye gaze com­puter.

“Our dad, de­spite all odds, lived life just how he wanted,” the fam­ily said in a state­ment.

The news of Pen­der­gast’s death spread quickly on so­cial me­dia, elic­it­ing trib­utes and re­mem­brances from for­mer stu­dents, col­leagues and peo­ple who have been touched by his ef­forts. A fu­neral Mass will be cel­e­brated Mon­day in his Suf­folk County home­town of Miller Place. It will also be streamed on­line.

“He’s a hero to all of us,” said Ray Man­zoni, a friend who serves as the chair­man of the ALS Ride for Life or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“Mr. P just had an air about him that he was go­ing to fight this to the end,” said Don Strasser, a chem­istry teacher in North­port, where Pen­der­gast taught el­e­men­tary school and re­mained a fix­ture at ALS fundrais­ers and class ac­tiv­i­ties. “He gave so many peo­ple hope ... He’s done that, time and time again for so many pa­tients.”

Pen­der­gast led the first ALS Ride for Life in 1998, five years af­ter his di­ag­no­sis. It was a 15-day jour­ney to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., that started at Yan­kee Sta­dium in the Bronx, where base­ball leg­end Lou Gehrig called him­self “the luck­i­est man on the face of the Earth” af­ter his own ALS di­ag­no­sis in 1939.

The route moved closer to home in sub­se­quent years, with Pen­der­gast in his mo­tor­ized wheel­chair lead­ing a small group of ALS pa­tients from Mon­tauk, at the east­ern tip of Long Is­land, to New York City, some 118 miles away. The two-week trek each spring drew im­mense com­mu­nity sup­port. Lo­cal po­lice pro­vided es­corts, peo­ple rode along on bi­cy­cles or joined on foot, and on­look­ers would some­times step into the street to hand over spare change.

The money the ride raised has funded a va­ri­ety of ALS-re­lated pro­grams, in­clud­ing the Christo­pher Pen­der­gast ALS Cen­ter of Ex­cel­lence. The cen­ter, opened at Stony Brook Univer­sity more than a decade ago, pro­vides a level of ser­vices that were pre­vi­ously only avail­able in New York City.

Pen­der­gast and his wife, Chris­tine, chron­i­cled their ex­pe­ri­ences as pa­tient, care­giver and ad­vo­cates in a re­cent book, “Blink Spo­ken Here: Tales From A Jour­ney To Within.”

Pen­der­gast, who re­tired from teach­ing in 2010, re­turned to schools fre­quently to of­fer an in­spi­ra­tional mes­sage of per­se­ver­ance in the face of ad­ver­sity. He last vis­ited with North­port High School stu­dents in Fe­bru­ary, just be­fore coron­avirus forced the clo­sure of schools and busi­nesses and the can­cel­la­tion of events, in­clud­ing May’s edi­tion of the Ride for Life.

From the start, Pen­der­gast saw his di­ag­no­sis as a call­ing to help oth­ers. In 1997, as ALS ate away at his abil­ity to walk, he marched out­side the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s of­fices in Wash­ing­ton, press­ing for ap­proval of an un­proven but po­ten­tially ben­e­fi­cial ther­apy.

“One day I’m go­ing to be chained

AP FILE PHO­TOS to that door,” Pen­der­gast told The As­so­ci­ated Press at the time. “It’s the pol­i­tics of power, and we have been pow­er­less for too long.”

In 2005, af­ter an­other North­port teacher re­vealed his ALS di­ag­no­sis, stu­dents were in­spired to start their own fundrais­ing event, an an­nual gala dubbed “Mid­win­ter Night’s Dream.” The event, the brain­child of one of Pen­der­gast’s el­e­men­tary-school science stu­dents, at­tracted celebrity guests such as “The So­pra­nos” star Edie Falco and pitcher David Cone.

Pen­der­gast shared ad­vice with stu­dents from his own ex­pe­ri­ences and was a cel­e­brated guest at each year’s gala. But, Strasser said, he was also care­ful not to take the spot­light from David Deutsch, the other North­port teacher bat­tling ALS. Deutsch died in 2012 and the last gala was held in 2014.

“There’s no doubt that be­ing in­volved ac­tively in fight­ing the dis­ease in this form is life-length­en­ing,” Pen­der­gast said at the first event. “We can’t un­dergo chemo­ther­apy or in­va­sive types of sur­gi­cal pro­ce­dures to al­low us to fight back against the dis­ease, so we have a choice of lay­ing down and do­ing noth­ing and al­low­ing the dis­ease to steam­roll right over us, or to fight back with spirit and get in­volved... That is our only medicine.”

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