Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Role Models - A Series

Inspired by my earlier posting concerning Nobel Peace Prize winners, I have decided to periodically feature impressive people. This is Harry Chapin, a musician, film maker, and activist fighting world hunger who left us all in 1981. This is an obituary of him I found at Harry Read if you are interested. I edited it a little to get it shorter.

"Harry Chapin: 1942-1981"
Rolling Stone, September 3, 1981
by Dave Marsh

Harry Chapin often described himself as a "third-rate folk singer," and judging from most of the reviews he received in these pages and elsewhere, he wasn't only kidding. Yet Harry Chapin was something more than that. For many who knew him, he was a legitimate hero, not so much for his music as for his consistent and conscientious willingness to fight the right battles, to stand up for a just cause, no matter how hopeless.

When his friends and political associates -- from Mary Rogol and Bill Ayres of World Hunger Year to Ralph Nader and Representative Tom Downey -- spoke of Chapin after his death in an auto accident on the Long Island Expressway July 16th, the word they all used was *fearless*. "It was the one quality of Harry's that I admired most," said Rogol. "Harry was never afraid. Not just physically. Where most people feared embarrassment, being laughed at or rejected, Harry just went right ahead. He just wanted to know what was right and what was the best way to accomplish it. That's real courage."

As Chapin was the first to acknowledge, such bravery isn't cool, for it lacks the necessary arm's-length distance from the world and its problems. Harry Chapin's function in the music world was not to be cool. He was *supposed* to be awkward and overtly unhip; he was *supposed* to stand in contrast to the glibness and callousness of many of his peers.

Harry Chapin was a pure product of the Fifties world of Greenwich Village and the Brooklyn Heights. Born on December 7th, 1942, he was the second song of Big Jim Chapin, a jazz drummer with Tommy Dorsey's and Woody Herman's bands. From the time they were in grammar school, Harry and younger brothers Tom and Steve performed together in various groups, Harry at first playing trumpet but later switching to guitar.

After high school, Harry studied at the Air Force Academy, from which he dropped out, then at Cornell University, where he flunked out twice. In 1964, he re-formed the family group, adding his father on drums. The Chapin Brothers played the usual rounds of Village clubs and folk-scene hangouts and recorded an album, "Chapin Music," on the Rockland Music label. But the band broke up when Tom and Steve returned to school, and Harry soon turned his attention to film, eventually making several documentaries, including "Legendary Champions," a boxing film that earned him an Oscar nomination in 1969.

A year later, at the height of the singer-songwriter boom, Chapin resumed his musical career. After playing the Village Gate in New York for the entire summer of '71, he was signed to Elektra Records. In 1972, he scored his first hit, "Taxi," from his debut LP, "Heads and Tales." Ten more albums followed, yielding a handful of other hits, notably "Cat's in the Cradle," "W*O*L*D," "Sniper," and last year's "Sequel," a follow-up to "Taxi."

Although he never sold a spectacular number of records, Chapin toured a great deal and his concerts were always well attended; it's estimated that his benefits alone netted more than $5 million for various charities.

On July 23rd, Harry Chapin's family and friends held a memorial service for him at Grace Church in Brooklyn Heights. There was some fine singing that afternoon by such musicians as Tom and Steve Chapin, Oscar Brand, Steve Goodman, Mary Travers and Peter Yarrow and Harry's idol Pete Seeger. Along with the family members and politicians, fans and paparazzi, they sang and celebrated, and some of the best singing and celebrating came during Harry's songs: "Circle," "Remember When the Music," and a new tune, "Jubilation," that may be the best thing he ever wrote.

If Harry Chapin was more than a third-rate folk singer, he was less than a pop star of the highest order. Even so, the immediate response to his death, in the media and among his fans, was overwhelming. It was as if he reached out and touched lives in a permanent and irrevocable way. This was true of fans (one speaker at the Brooklyn service was a railroad brakeman), of journalists (the finest eulogy to Chapin was written by former sportswriter Tony Kornheiser, a friend from Long Island, in the "Washington Post") and, most of all, of Congressmen.

Three of the speakers at Grace Church were members of Congress. Representative Tom Downey, the young Long Island Democrat, was an obvious colleague, but Representative Ben Gilman is a more conservative, older New York Republican. Gilman was there because, through his work with Chapin on Jimmy Carter's Presidential Commission on World Hunger, he came to cherish Harry as the best kind of American citizen. Most eloquent of all, though, was Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the only Democratic senator that state has ever elected, and a man who attributes his narrow victory in 1980 to Harry Chapin's campaign work for him. Leahy was the chief mover in the Senate effort to pass a resolution in support of the hunger commission, and because Chapin also had a vacation home in Vermont, the two had grown personally close. Leahy's eulogy was well written and moving, but what I'll always recall was what he said before he read it: "You know, I think I've shed more tears in the last few days than at any other time in my adult life."

On the floor of Congress, the reaction was very similar. No other singer -- not Bing Crosby, nor Elvis Presley, nor John Lennon -- has ever been so widely honored by the nation's legislators. Nine senators and thirty congressmen paid tribute to Harry Chapin on the floor, and not all of them were the kind of liberal Democrats on whose behalf Harry had campaigned so long and hard last fall. No less a conservative than Senator Robert Dole of Kansas, not exactly known for his political generosity of spirit, called Chapin "a liberal, and a liberal in the best sense of the word. He possessed a spirit of generosity and optimism that carried him through his various commitments with a great sense of seriousness and purpose... What he was really committed to was decency and dignity."

Harry Chapin was just the sort of man who would inspire tributes even from ideological foes. He believed deeply in all those corny virtues and ideals that the rest of us are too cynical, jaded, or just plain scared to admit that we, too, cherish. "He constantly talked about reinventing America," remembered Bill Ayres, the writer and broadcaster who in 1975 founded World Hunger Year, an educational and research organization, with Chapin. "In his vision, the Constitution established a democratic process in which people were being asked not just to vote, but to be informed and involved." And Chapin acted on that belief.

Though he is best known for his activism on the hunger issue, Chapin was also a member of the Cambodia Crisis Committee and raised money for the Public Interest Research Group and Congresswatch (two Ralph Nader organizations), as well as Consumer Action Now. In addition, he campaigned on behalf of such past and present senators as Leahy, Mo Udall, Frank Church, Gary Hart, and Alan Cranston. And on Long Island, where he lived with his wife, Sandy, and their five children (Jamie, Jason, Jono, Jenny, and Josh), he was a member of the boards of Hofstra University, the Long Island Association, Long Island Cares (a local hunger effort), the Action Committee for Long Island (a convocation of businessmen), the Performing Arts Foundation, the Long Island Philharmonic, and the Eglevsky Ballet.

Chapin focused on hunger at least partly because it touches on so many other critical issues, from the political power of multinational corporations to basic land reform. "Harry was big on empowerment," said Ayres. "The idea of World Hunger Year isn't simply to put food in people's mouths, but to help them change their lives, to get people involved in their own desire to help themselves. Harry wanted to reach both people who are hungry and people who feel left out of the political process. He did not want to motivate people through guilt; he wanted to combine a sense of awareness of responsibility with a sense of life."

Chapin worked with unique focus and effectiveness in lobbying Congress on World Hunger. He succeeded partly because so many congressmen were nonplussed by such energy and commitment from a celebrity, but also because some would have done anything to get rid of his pestering. In his eulogy, Leahy recalled a meeting with President Carter, at which the president agreed to create the commission. "Harry would not stop. He continued to hammer the reasons for it into the president. Carter sat there trying to explain that he agreed, he agreed, but Harry wasn't going to let him off that easy. He wanted not only for him to agree, he wanted him to be committed. That's the difference between Harry Chapin and those who simply give lip service to a cause."

Unfortunately, the hunger commission was ineffective. Except for Chapin. His unique combination of celebrity and commitment created a real congressional constituency for his ideals and dreams, and he was still putting together plans for hunger legislation and public-food policy initiatives when he died.

Ralph Nader called Harry Chapin "the most effective outsider I've ever seen in this town," and that was due mostly to Harry's conviction that all his work -- musical and political, artistic and charitable -- should not be "event-oriented" but committed to a process in which each segment leads naturally to the next, and into which others can be enticed and pulled along. It worked at all sorts of levels, from the fundraising radiothons he and Ayres staged in ten cities over the years, reaching an audience of 15 million people, to the new chapter of World Hunger Year recently created in Arizona.

The question now is what happens without Harry Chapin? At meeting, Chapin used to stress the involvement of others, not only by good-naturedly disparaging himself, but by pointing out that "if I should walk across the street and get hit by a taxi tomorrow, what's left of this organization?" It was one of his greatest hopes that other musicians would get involved in the hunger issue in the way that some have become involved in antinuclear activism, for instance James Taylor and Gordon Lightfoot, among others, have appeared at World Hunger Year events in recent years, and in early July, just a few weeks before Chapin's death, Kenny Rogers donated more than $150,000, the entire proceeds from a show at the Capitol Center in largo, Maryland, to the organization. But none of these performers is likely to bring a continuous and persistent focus to bear on hunger or political issues, none of them is likely to subordinate his career to the cause of feeding the world (or, as Harry surely would have corrected me, helping the world to feed itself), social justice and more perfectly ordered democratic institutions in America. Those were the causes at the center of Harry Chapin's work, which was not so much a career as a vocation. And as with all vocations, they belong to the man who hears the calling. In this regard, Chapin really is irreplaceable, and even a great many rock stars and ordinary citizens working together won't make up for what we have lost.

(Contributions may be sent to the Harry Chapin Memorial Fund, c/o World Hunger Year, address found at WHY's WWW site,

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