Harry Chapin and Bill Ayres made a commitment to each other when they were young men that they would spend the rest of their lives fighting poverty and hunger.

Chapin, author of such classic pop music hits as "Cat's in the Cradle" and a Huntington resident, died tragically in a car accident on the Long Island Expressway in 1981 at the age of 38. But Ayres has kept the promise alive, and this year marks the 40th anniversary of the anti-hunger group the pair founded in 1975, WhyHunger.

"There was nobody like Harry Chapin -- ever," said Ayres, now 74, of Huntington Station. "Half the concerts he did, he did for" anti-hunger causes.

For Ayres, a former Catholic priest, this year also marks 40 years of hosting a weekly call-in program on WPLJ/95.5FM in which he and listeners talk about spirituality, healing, relationships and similar topics.

Ayres met Chapin in 1973 when Ayres -- who was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Rockville Centre in 1966 -- was hosting a radio show on WPLJ called "On This Rock." Ayres interviewed rock stars and talked about the spiritual meanings of their songs, and social justice issues.

He and Chapin hit it off and soon talked about organizing a benefit concert to combat hunger in Africa.

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That project was shelved, partly because Chapin decided a permanent organization could have more impact than a one-day event.

 

Getting to the root cause

"From the beginning we had a different notion about how you deal with hunger than most people," Ayres said. The key was "getting to the root cause of hunger, which is poverty, and getting to the root cause of poverty, which is powerlessness of people. So we started from the beginning believing that we needed to change the system basically."

Today, WhyHunger has a $3.5 million budget, a staff of 16 at its headquarters in Manhattan near Penn Station, and support from music stars such as Kenny Rogers, Yoko Ono and Bruce Springsteen, Ayres said.

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The organization runs a national hotline that hundreds of thousands of people have called for emergency food. Since 2002, it has distributed about $3 million to grassroots anti-poverty groups.

WhyHunger also works with emergency food groups to help them provide more nutritious food and to help people get out of poverty by connecting them to job-training programs, housing and child care. The number of groups it helps has grown from a few dozen in the early years to several hundred now, Ayres said.

"Harry died 33 years ago and some of the organizations he started [are] not only alive but flourishing," said Chapin's younger brother, Tom Chapin, 70, himself a Grammy Award-winning musician who has served on WhyHunger's board since its inception. "To me it's a moving and astonishing and brilliant 40 years of really amazing work."

Other groups Harry Chapin founded include Hauppauge-based Long Island Cares, which provides food to pantries, soup kitchens and other agencies serving the needy.

 

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'Healing and service'

Besides helping to run WhyHunger, Ayres heads to WPLJ's studios, also near Penn Station, late every Sunday night to host "The Bill Ayres Show." In a way, he said, the show is a continuation of the work he did as a priest for 13 years, only he does it on the air, from midnight until 1:30 a.m.

"Priesthood is about healing and service," Ayres said. "I'm a servant. That's what this is all about."

His long history in television and radio includes serving as the first head of Telecare, the cable television channel run by the Diocese of Rockville Centre, from 1976 to 1979. He was succeeded by Msgr. Tom Hartman, a good friend with whom he had shared the rectory at St. James parish in Seaford.

For years Ayres also worked with the legendary radio DJ Pete Fornatale and the pair were radio co-hosts of WhyHunger's annual Hunger-Thon fundraiser.

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Ayres said he was the first host to interview Springsteen on network radio, on WPLJ, just before "The Boss" hit it big with his 1975 album "Born to Run." Springsteen has supported WhyHunger for years, Ayres and Tom Chapin said."I've had a lot of successes in music and other things," Tom Chapin said. "But the thing I am maybe most proud of and makes me really emotional is the work and connection with WhyHunger."

Ayres said that if Harry Chapin were alive, he would share the sentiment. "Harry would really be proud of this stuff," Ayres said. "He really wanted to make a difference."