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FILE – In this August 13, 1980 file photo at a political fundraiser, from left, Ralph Nader, Mark Green, Gilda Radner and Harry Chapin pose for a photo at the Empire State Building in New York. Before there was Band Aid or Live Aid, A We Are the World or Hand Across America, there was singer-songwriter Harry Chapin – pressing for change in Congress, upsetting President Carter who had already convinced him to create a commission on world hunger, and pass Hat for donations at parties big and small. (AP Photo/Nancy Kaye, File)


Editor’s note: Editor John D. D’Agostino on November 8, 2022. This column, first published October 3, 2014, is in his memory.

I grew up in Geneva on the Finger Lakes when I was young, there wasn’t a lot of variety in our house when it came to music. We had one choice: Harry Chapin.

If our family is going to a concert, there is no discussion. Harry was young.

How lucky we were.

Each of Chapin’s songs, most of them from the ’70s, presents a story. His most famous number-one hits were “Kittens in the cradle.” It’s a story set in today’s society – a father and son who can’t make time for each other. “WOLD” is the story of a journeyman disc jockey. “Taxi” It tells of a taxi driver who picks up an ex-lover and a different path in their lives.

All of his record albums were appreciated in our house – and played almost every day and all weekends.

Chapin had another famous trait. The man who’s made millions doing something he loves has always found a way to give back—to his fans and those less fortunate. Many of those concerts we attended – in Syracuse and Rochester – were used to support his charity.

In 1975, he co-founded World Hunger Year with radio personality and current CEO Bill Ayers. It continues today under the name WhyHunger, which contains a mission statement “Building the movement to end hunger and poverty by connecting people to affordable, nutritious food and by supporting grassroots solutions that inspire self-reliance and community empowerment.”

Of the more than $3 million the organization raised in 2013, 92 percent of its expenditures went directly to its program of work to accomplish its mission. This is an excellent record for any charity.

Hunger’s perseverance and vision are a testament to Chapin, whose life was tragically ended at 38 on July 16, 1981, in a car accident on the Long Island Freeway. He was, of all things, on his way to perform a free concert that day.

Tonight, Jamestown will celebrate the musician — as well as his enduring legacy. “Harry Chapin: A Family Celebration” It starts at eight and features his family and the band. According to a press release from Reg Lena Theatre, it was a promise he made a month before his death: He would return to town to collect donations if the community committed to restoring the then-decaying former Palace Theatre.

The state of the facility was so poor that two young men and the audience, some of whom had umbrellas during the performance, were drenched in rain.

No wonder it was the first live performance held at the facility in 25 years.

Kathleen Eads, executive director at the Reg Lena Center for the Arts, saw a poster related to Chapin’s performance at the mansion after work began in January. Her husband, an actor associated with the Chapin family, reached out to see if the family and band members had any interest in participating in an event in Jamestown.

“They were all really excited to come and do a concert,” She said.

Along with the music, there will also be video interviews from those who attended the 1981 gala as well as clips from Jamestown leaders and entrepreneurs about what the Reg Lena Center means to them. “It’s about how the community comes together to bring theatre to life,” Eads said.

My parents, who celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary last month, loved the man and his music. They also liked, like Eads, what he was able to achieve.

“It was a great example of using fame for the betterment of the world,” She said. “Before his death, he gave (many) free concerts every year.”

In honor of Chapin, the food drive runs through Saturday at the center. All donations will go to St. Susan’s Center in Jamestown, the Southern District’s premier food pantry.

John D’Agostino is the editor of Observer, The Post-Journal, and Times Observer in Warren, Pennsylvania. Send feedback to [email protected] or call 716-366-3000, ext. 253.

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