Singer Harry Chapin. (July 20, 1978)

Singer Harry Chapin. (July 20, 1978) Credit: Newsday File Photo

This story was originally published in Newsday on September 19, 2006

He was a 1970s folk icon, a prolific songwriter with irrepressible energy who sought to eliminate poverty and hunger.

Singer-activist Harry Chapin founded World Hunger Year in 1975 and established the Islandwide food bank, Long Island Cares, in 1980, the year before he died at 38 in a car accident on the Long Island Expressway.

Now, 25 years after his death, grassroots organizations worldwide benefit from World Hunger Year, and 600 Long Island agencies - including soup kitchens, food pantries and homeless shelters - are served by Long Island Cares.

In tribute to the songwriter's continuing influence, his family and friends will give a benefit concert, "Harry Chapin: Stories of a Life," Thursday night at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University. All proceeds will go to the two organizations he founded.

Balladeer Tom Chapin said the musical clan remembers his brother's constant Hey-let's-get-up-and-do-something refrain. "Harry never did anything alone. He was always gathering a bunch of people, always telling us, 'You and I together can change the world,'" Tom Chapin said.

Thousands of fans who remember the Huntington activist's plaintive ballads, hearty handshakes and compassion still write to his wife and children, said his daughter, herself a singer-songwriter.

Jen Chapin, 35, who was 10 when her father died, said she'll sing some of his classics, as well as songs from her own new album, "Ready." Her father, she said, would want us to "move the legacy forward." He thought big, she said, whether it was building a bigger dollhouse for a doll that was too large for the standard dollhouse, writing the 6-minute-long ballad "Taxi," or feeding the world's hungry.

Other performers will include another brother, Steve Chapin; the Chapin Sisters, who are two of Tom's daughters and one stepdaughter; and bassist John Wallace and drummer Howard Fields, who were in Harry Chapin's band.

All Chapin family members have continued to be active in the food bank, including his widow, Sandy, who is chairwoman of the board, said Lynn Needelman, executive director of Long Island Cares.

Chapin also applied his concerns globally when he founded World Hunger Year, called WHY, with Bill Ayres, the executive director.

Jen Chapin, chairwoman of the WHY board, said the organization "asks the questions Dad asked, such as why hunger exists when there is enough food to feed the world many times over?" WHY also runs a hunger hotline, 1-866-3HUNGRY.

The only immediate family member who will miss the Thursday benefit is Harry's father, James Chapin, 87, a jazz drummer who now lives in Florida and whose plans were interrupted by foot surgery. He'll be there in his heart, he said.

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