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Fierce and compassionate teacher leaves a legacy at Cornell

Scholarship honors Mitzi Russekoff '54

David and Mitzi Russekoff

David Russekoff '89 with his mother, Mitzi Russekoff '54. Mitzi taught for 37 years at PS 316 in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. A new scholarship, established by David in his mother's name, will help kids from that neighborhood attend Cornell. Photo: provided.

When she was a teacher at PS 316 in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Mitzi Russekoff's '54 focus wasn't on getting her fifth- and sixth-grade students to go to college.

"It was more like just make sure they stay in school and finish high school," says her son, David Russekoff '89. "That was a pretty big achievement."

During 37 years of teaching at PS 316, tough but compassionate Mitzi Russekoff made a strong impression on generations of elementary school students. They listened to her and respected her, says her son. Many of her students went on to finish high school. Many kept in touch with her. "She'd run into former students at the airport and they came up to thank her," her son recalls.

Now, the Muriel Sutton Russekoff '54 Scholarship Fund, established in 2011 by David Russekoff in honor of his mother, is designated to help underprivileged students from Bedford-Stuyvesant attend Cornell.

Mitzi Russekoff died in October after a short illness due to acute leukemia, but her scholarship continues her legacy at Cornell.

"It's nice for young kids to have an opportunity," says David Russekoff, whose own time at Cornell opened many opportunities. An economics graduate in the College of Arts and Sciences, he now is a managing partner and chief investment officer at the hedge fund firm Perry Capital.

Attending Cornell, he says, was a great and rare opportunity for his mother, as well. A child of the Depression, she wanted very badly to attend Cornell but her family was barely able to afford it. After attending another college for her freshman year, she and her family -- with the help of financial aid -- made a Cornell education possible.

David Russekoff and family on Fire Island

David Russekoff, Mitzi Russekoff and David's children, Char and Isabella, on Fire Island. Photo: provided.

Her gratitude and enthusiasm for Cornell continued throughout her life, says John "Jim" Settel '54. She served the Class of 1954 as class secretary and then as class co-president. A graduate of the College of Human Ecology, she attended virtually all her class reunions, most recently in June 2014.

"She loved Cornell," says David Russekoff.

Mitzi Russekoff also loved life.

A Cornell Club-New York City regular, Mitzi Russekoff would walk from her home on 76th Street to the club six days a week.

"There'd be Mitzi, coming down 44th Street," says Craig Lasnier, a manager who knew her well. "Seeing her come in the front door was a comfort to me. She was a part of the family."

She and Lasnier shared family notes often and Russekoff took a particular interest in Lasnier's daughter, a 2009 graduate of the College of Human Ecology and budding teacher.

Mitzi worked out in the club's health and fitness center six days a week, says Norman Dey, fitness director at the Cornell Club. She also had a wry sense of humor.

"We liked to pick on people who didn't work out as hard as she did," says Dey.

By establishing a scholarship in the name of his mother, David Russekoff hopes to open opportunities for Cornell students.

"What better way to honor her," says her son, "than a scholarship so kids can go to Cornell?"

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