When Jason Chapin was a teenager, he lost his father in an automobile accident on the Long Island Expressway. That was 35 years ago. Yet, as with many artists of yore whose gifts resonated with millions, Harry Chapin lives on in song and spirit.
His distinctive sound and colorful storytelling still can be heard on radio, online at Harry Chapin Radio, and in concerts by The Chapin Family: Harry’s daughter, Jen Chapin (sister of Jason); Harry’s brothers, Steve and Tom; and Tom’s daughters, Abigail and Lily, billed as The Chapin Sisters.
His legacy endures locally with the annual Harry Chapin Memorial Run Against Hunger, which draws 1,000 participants each October to its home base of Croton-on-Hudson. It raises about $40,000 a year, according to race director Jud Ramaker of Croton, and assistant race director Mike Grayeb of Larchmont. The Oct. 16 start and finish lines are at Croton-Harmon High School, where runners also can register day of, or in advance at RunAgainstHunger.com.
Like other popular musicians, Harry Chapin shared his gift with us. Unlike most other popular artists, or for that matter, celebrities of any kind, he shared something else, and shared it so generously, it fairly boggles the mind, and stirs the conscience.
As son Jason recalls, when his dad was on the road in the 1970s, playing as many as 200 concerts in a single year, he would donate his earnings from fully one-half of those dates to feed the hungry and the poor. “I play one night for me and one night for the other guy,” is how Harry Chapin humbly put it.
“He was addicted to being involved with different charities and supporting them,” says Jason, who clearly carries forth his father’s humanitarian genes. For the past 20 years, Jason has been involved in workforce development, helping people get back to work. He currently is project manager for a regional grant funded by the federal government that is placing more than 500 local people in jobs over the next three years.
“My dad introduced me to a lot of things,” says Jason, who lives in Chappaqua with wife, Chrissy, and their three children, Anna, Katie and Will. “He was a big proponent of doing things you enjoy and making a difference.” Harry Chapin made a difference in many ways having nothing to do with his music. He helped found two prominent charities that endure: Long Island Cares and Why Hunger. Both are dedicated to fighting hunger, and are among about a dozen beneficiaries who receive funds raised through the Harry Chapin Run Against Hunger.
Harry Chapin’s selfless nature touched those outside his family as well, including one person who lived in Croton in the early 1980s. At the time, a group of locals talked about starting a fundraising race to help fight hunger, which exists even in the otherwise comfortable culture of the Hudson Valley.
So how did Harry Chapin, who lived in Huntington, Long Island, end up as the face of a race in Westchester?
As plans for the fundraiser advanced in 1981 (the same year Harry Chapin passed), a Croton resident who identified himself as a producer for the recording artist stepped forward. He offered to donate $5,000 to the cause if the race was named after Harry Chapin.
Nobody I spoke to who is connected to the race or to Harry Chapin could identify that anonymous donor. Not even Jason Chapin knows who he is. “That person’s name has never been revealed to me,” says the middle child of Harry and Sandy Chapin’s five children. “I’m very moved that somebody all those years ago wanted my father’s charity work recognized, and made a personal donation to make that happen.”
Jason says he still greatly enjoys hearing his dad’s music. “Every now and then, there’s a commercial or a cover [recording] by a musician, and it makes me feel so good to know what he wrote and performed many years ago still connects with people. It shows the staying power he has with his fans.”
Asked if he had some favorite Harry Chapin songs, Jason cited “Sniper,” calling it “a strange and unique song. I get a lot of pleasure listening to it, even though it’s dark.”
More predictably, echoing the masses, Jason singled out “Cat’s in the Cradle,” which hit No. 1 on the charts, and the saga “Taxi,” a perennial favorite for its beautiful writing and universal sentiment of youthful dreams gone adrift. I also am partial to “W.O.L.D.”
Jason said some Harry Chapin numbers “have more meaning to me because they are about family members. I enjoy the ones about my mother, like ‘I Want to Learn a Love Song’ and ‘Sandy.’”
Sandra Chapin, in fact, penned the artful lyrics for some of her husband’s hit tunes, like “Cat’s in the Cradle.” The song “Keep Calling My Name” is about Jason and his siblings.
In addition to singer-songwriter Jen Chapin, the siblings include Jaime, a Westchester realtor; Josh, a filmmaker; and Jono, a Vermont farmer.
“We’re all committed to doing things not just that my father’s been involved in, but my mother’s very dedicated to,” says Jason. Sandra Chapin chairs The Harry Chapin Foundation, where Jason and Josh also sit on the board. Family members also are on the boards of the Harry Chapin Race Against Hunger and other foundations that fight hunger and poverty.
The Harry Chapin Foundation’s mission is “to support organizations that have demonstrated their ability to dramatically improve the lives and livelihood of people by helping them to become self-sufficient.” The organization has its origins in a not-for-profit called The Food Policy Center that was started by Harry Chapin along with James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot and John Denver. Kenny Rogers also played a role in kick-starting the Foundation with a $150,000 donation from a benefit concert.
Harry Chapin posthumously was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for his extraordinary acts of charity that exceeded what any 1,000 people might do to help the needy.
Waxing philosophical for eternity, Harry Chapin wrote his own epitaph: “If a man tried before he died to prove what one man’s life could be worth, I wonder what would happen to this world.”
We all should wonder… and get our Harry Chapin on.