Harry Chapin Recalled As A Charitable Giant

Before there was Band Aid or Live Aid, a We Are the World or Hands Across America, there was singer-songwriter Harry Chapin – lobbying for change in Congress, pestering an already convinced President Carter to establish a commission on world hunger, and passing the hat for donations at concerts large and small.

Chapin has been gone now nearly as long as he lived. He achieved artistic and commercial success with a string of hits in the 1970s, songs like “Cats in the Cradle,” ‘‘Taxi” and “Circle” that aging Baby Boomers – and their babies’ babies – still cherish.

His work as an advocate for the hungry is a legacy that resonates 30 years after his death at age 38 when a tractor-trailer demolished his car on the Long Island Expressway. Chapin died only hours before he was to perform a free concert before an expected crowd of 25,000 at the island’s Eisenhower Park.

Now another benefit concert is planned by members of the Chapin family, including daughter Jen and his brothers Tom and Steve – also recording artists – at a town park in Chapin’s hometown of Huntington, on Long Island. Admission to the Saturday event is free, but fans are asked to bring donations of food and money to benefit the Long Island Cares food bank, another charity founded by Chapin.

“Just to call him an inspiration would minimize his real impact. Harry Chapin, his life and his efforts, did an awful lot not only to stimulate the success of We Are the World, but its longevity,” said entertainer Harry Belafonte, a driving force behind the 1985 benefit that raised millions to fight starvation in Africa.

Photo: AP Photo
In this Nov. 1976, photo provided by WhyHunger, Harry Chapin urges radio listeners to get involved in the fight against hunger.

“It’s hard to overestimate the amount of good he did,” added Sen. Patrick Leahy, a close friend of Chapin’s who confessed he broke down in tears after he was summoned from the Senate floor on July 16, 1981, and told of the fatal crash. Speaking at Chapin’s memorial service, Leahy said, was one of the most difficult things he’s ever done.

“There are a huge number of people who probably have no idea who he is,” Leahy told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “All they know is they got fed because of him and they wouldn’t have otherwise, both in this country and abroad.”

The Vermont Democrat recalls a meeting with Carter in the White House, when Carter agreed to form a commission focusing on world hunger. Chapin’s tenacious spirit almost kyboshed the deal, Leahy said.

“We sat around the Cabinet room and he starts telling the president we should do this. And the president’s trying to say ‘I agree with you, Harry.’ And he’s just getting all wound up and excited. I finally said, ‘Harry, Harry, don’t talk him out of it.’ Everybody laughed, but he pushed for it and pushed so hard.”

Continuing his work three decades on is clearly a labor of love for the Chapin family, says Jen Chapin, a singer-songwriter who often performs with her father’s guitar. She and other relatives have served on the board of directors of WhyHunger, a charity her father co-founded as “World Hunger Year” in the 1970s.

“It’s part of the fabric of our everyday lives,” said Chapin, who was 10 when her father died. Whenever she appears in concert, fans tell her of their affection for her father. “A lot of people remember him and make connections, share stories,” she said.

She doesn’t doubt that her father may have drifted toward a career in politics had he not been killed, recalling talk that he was considering a bid for a U.S. Senate seat in New York before he died. If he were alive today? “He would have been all over the social media. He was a very fast-paced person living in a much slower world.”

Since her father’s passing, entertainers including Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Rogers and others have become forceful advocates on the hunger issue. Springsteen has for many years allowed local food banks to collect donations at his concerts.

“The fact of the matter is Harry was the greatest advocate for the homeless and malnourished in the entertainment business,” says Ken Kragen, Chapin’s manager for the last three years of his life. Kragen is credited with helping organize the We Are The World recording, and later was a founder of Hands Across America, another endeavor to fight hunger and homelessness.

“I think that he really inspired the events of the mid- and later 80s,” Kragen said. “I would hope he would be very pleased at how much he has inspired.”

Belafonte told The AP that he and Chapin were not intimate friends, but had met several times.

“We shared the platform on a number of occasions and I always responded favorably whenever he asked me to do anything, whether it was to write a letter or make a call,” the 84-year-old singer said in a telephone interview.

“In that context, I grew to really admire him, not only for his commitment to the cause of hunger, but also the fact that he did it with such passion, such real commitment. As an artist, I certainly loved his work. Not only his music, but the content of his words. He spoke about the human condition with a sense of humor and as a lyricist he had his hand on the pulse of social needs.”

Bill Ayres, a former Roman Catholic priest who has hosted a weekly radio talk show in New York since 1973, co-founded the organization now known as WhyHunger after first interviewing Chapin for his radio program.

When they started in 1975, there were only 28 emergency food providers throughout New York City. Today, he said, there are about 1,200. On a national level, he said WhyHunger works with approximately 8,400 community organizations, some of which deal with issues of hunger, while others help get jobs, health care and housing for those in need.

The organization conducts radio “hunger-thons” raising millions over the years, mostly in New York, but they have recently aired nationally over satellite radio. A WhyHunger spokeswoman said since its founding in 1975, the organization has raised more than $30 million to help more than 10 million families, children, veterans and others around the world gain access to nutritious food and vital services.

Ayres recalled: “Harry used to say ‘when in doubt, do something,’ and we have done a lot of things and it’s still going on.”