Mr. Pendergast, who was diagnosed with ALS in his 40s, 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.
Mr. Pendergast led the first ALS Ride for Life in 1998, five years after his diagnosis. It was an ambitious, 15-day journey to Washington 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 Mr. 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.
Money raised from the ride has funded a variety of ALS-related programs, including the Christopher Pendergast ALS Center of Excellence. The center, opened at Long Island’s Stony Brook University more than a decade ago, provides a level of diagnostic and treatment services that were previously available only in New York City.
Mr. 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.” The title referred to the way Mr. Pendergast communicated through an eye-gaze computer.
After retiring from teaching in 2003, Mr. Pendergast 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 the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of schools and businesses and the cancellation of events, including this year’s edition of the Ride for Life.
“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 Mr. Pendergast taught elementary school and remained a fixture at ALS fundraisers and class activities. “He gave so many people hope.”
From the start, Mr. 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 to that door,” he told the Associated Press at the time. “It’s the politics of power, and we have been powerless for too long.”
Mr. Pendergast was born April 28, 1949, and was a graduate of the State University of New York at Fredonia. He received a master’s degree from Stony Brook University. He began teaching in Northport in the 1970s.
“There’s no doubt that being involved actively in fighting the disease in this form is life-lengthening,” Mr. Pendergast said in 2005. “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.”
— Associated Press
Read more Washington Post obituaries