Manhasset community, alumni raises $70K for beloved chorus teacher battling ALS

Manhasset community, alumni raises $70K for beloved chorus teacher battling ALS
Mark van Schenkhof, of Port Washington. (Photo courtesy of Julie Lavin)

Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, once said “Today, see if you can stretch your heart and expand your love so that it touches not only those to whom you can give it easily, but also to those who need it so much.”

When Mark van Schenkhof, otherwise known as “Mr. V” to his students, wasn’t teaching chorus at Manhasset Secondary School, he often shared with them many of the philosopher’s quotes. 

“That was his thing, it wasn’t just music it was life lessons he would give you,” said Julie Lavin, a former student of van Schenkhof and Manhasset graduate of the class of 2005. 

Van Schenkhof, 68, of Port Washington, was diagnosed seven years ago with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a nervous system disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease that weakens muscles and impacts physical function. 

Returning the favor he gave so many of his students, the Manhasset community and alumni have stretched their hearts themselves, raising $70,000 in a GoFundMe to help cover the costs of van Schenkhof’s around-the-clock care. 

Van Schenkhof first started working in the district at Manhasset Middle School in 1999, moving to the high school two years later. He was the commencement speaker in 2005, the only class that were students of his for six years. 

Aside from his work in the district, van Schenkhof was also the organist and choir director for Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church on Carlton Avenue in Port Washington in 2001. The church held a concert to celebrate van Schenkhof’s music ministry in 2021.

Upon hearing that van Schenkhof’s battle with ALS worsening, Lavin, classmate Kate Aitken and Sandra Baskin, a retired Manhasset teacher who was van Schenkhof’s pianist, started the GoFundMe on Aug. 31. 

The page includes a 25-minute tribute from former students to their former teacher, many of whom have gone into the music field themselves due to van Schenkhof. 

The immense grassroots support is something that van Schenkhof, and his wife Carol–a vocal teacher in Port Washington who also worked with Manhasset students–could have never imagined.

“She calls us her angels,” Lavin said on updating the family on the fundraising thus far. “We’ve been able to do so much and she never thought this would be possible ever.”

Van Schenkhof’s relationship with his students has lasted longer than just their time together in class. Until about a year ago, Lavin said any student who was friends with him on social media could expect a personalized birthday message on their special day. 

“You knew at 12:00 on your birthday you were getting a message from Mr. Van Schenkhof,” Lavin said. “It was just a little something that he continued to do.”

Lavin likened van Schenkhof to Manhasset’s version of Glenn Holland, the high-school music teacher played by Richard Dreyfuss in 1999’s “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” 

After retiring from the district in 2019, students who learned under van Schenkhof’s 20 years at the high school returned to Manhasset for a reunion concert to van Schenkhof’s surprise. The July 2019 event featured solo acts and choral performances, each conducted by van Schenkhof himself. 

It was a fitting sendoff for Manhasset’s Mr. Holland, who in the movie was welcomed on his last day of teaching by students spanning his 30-year career, joining and conducting their orchestra for one last performance. 

“It’s hard to describe the impact he had on all of us,” Lavin said. “It wasn’t just music, everything he taught us has stayed with us all this time.”

The GoFundMe for van Schenkhof can be found online here.

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