It was a usually sunny, hot day on July 16, 1981, with temperatures reaching the mid-1990s. Many non-working New Yorkers flocked to Long Island beaches for relief.
Shortly after 12:30 pm, as the news director of the popular and important rock radio station WLIR, I began receiving reports of an accident and a major traffic connection on the Long Island Expressway. I broadcast some routine updates and then answered a phone call in the newsroom.
“I work for the Long Island newspaper,” said the voice at the other end. “I’m listening to your reports and I thought you should know that we are listening to someone who was killed in the crash – and that it could be Harry Chapin.”
A cold fell on my spine. The singer-songwriter has been a frequent presence on the station for years, initially giving concerts with his grandiose, such as “Taxi”, “W * O * L * D” and “Cat’s in the Cradle”, but more and more air for the politician his social activism. In fact, last year, I attended a party during the Democratic National Assembly where Harry turned to any journalist to talk about ending poverty and global hunger.
I asked the caller if he had specific information about the accident. All he knew was that the victim had been pulled by a blue Volkswagen rabbit.
I immediately called another WLIR musician, Peter Masi, a close friend of Harry. Without telling him why, I asked what car Harry was driving. “A blue Volkswagen Rabbit” was the amazing answer.
Within minutes, Peter had called Chapin’s home in Huntington, New York, to confirm the tragic news. I got on the phone with Harry Don Ruthig’s personal assistant, recorded a brief conversation with him and alerted the Associated Press. The AP published a world bulletin, I announced the tragic news to our local radio audience and the country began to mourn the 38-year-old pop / rock artist.
It was Ruthig’s birthday that day, and the Chapins were starting to gather at his house for a barbecue. Harry’s 8-year-old son, Josh, happily broke into the pool when his mood suddenly changed. “I knew there was going to be a party for Don that my dad was going to attend,” Josh reminded this week, “so when you get in a car and drive home, you know something funky has happened.”
At Chapin’s house, Harry’s wife, Sandy, was trying to gather herself so she could break the disastrous news to her five children – three from her first marriage and Josh and Jen’s sister from her marriage. with Harry. After Josh got home, he was transported back to a car, supposedly getting some food. “We went to Burger King, then we stopped at 7-11,” he said. “‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ was playing on the speakers and I knew again something had happened.” When they returned home, he said: “My mother called me in her bedroom, told me the news and rubbed my back. I remember crying very loudly for a few minutes. ”
Josh, of course, was not the only one shedding tears that day. Millions of Harry fans have been shocked by the loss of a beloved, charismatic singer whose music and lyrics touched their hearts and whose relentless, almost ideological activism for a variety of reasons has inspired a generation.
Harry had scheduled a free concert on the night of his death – one of the hundreds he did each year – and two months later, the open-air theater where he was performing was renamed in his honor. At this event, I asked his brother, fellow musician Tom Chapin, how Harry’s humanitarian work could go. “There is no way to replace Harry Chapin,” said Tom. “We can’t think of getting into his shoes, because he stuffed them bigger than any of us could have.” But the best tribute to Harry, Tom suggested, “would be to stuff our shoes a little fuller by participating.”
Harry’s charitable endeavors continue through the eponymous foundation and through the WhyHunger organization, which Harry co-founded in 1975 as the “World Year of Hunger.” The widow and his children are still involved in the causes for which they fought and in 1987 Harry was awarded the Gold Medal of Honor after Congress.
Although “Cat’s in the Cradle” is a sad song about a father and son who never have enough time for each other – and Harry referred to Josh as “Cat’s son in the Cradle”. The lyrics began as a poem written by Sandy Chapin about her first husband and his troubled relationship with his father.
Josh Chapin – who became the same father for the first time last year with the birth of his daughter – has never experienced such controversial feelings as a child. Despite Harry’s execution schedule, “I never remember thinking, ‘Where is my dad?’ When he was present, he was such a life force and he made you feel that something exciting was happening. I do not remember any time when he was half. It just made you feel happy to be near him. “
“I have a strange relationship with ‘Cat’s,'” Josh continued, “because it was not for me.” Not so with “Dancin ‘Boy”, a catchy, melody that Josh says “he knew was all mine”. Harry expresses his love for his then 4 year old boy, singing: “I am so proud when you are with me, that my heart digs in my throat. And when you stop doing your things, my eyes go all out.
Josh appeared on stage with his dad several times a year, usually during the school holidays. A fond memory is the time Harry signed records, poetry books and T-shirts for fans after a show. “I was asked to sign the commercials as well,” Josh said, “and I was trying to figure out what my skill should be.” I saw him write a big “H” and then a sketch, and a big “C” and a sketch, and I started imitating that. “
Harry, however, “saw what I was doing and said very lovingly, ‘Hello Turkey, you know how to write better than that.’ Do not copy me! “There are things where I remember the impression that he is a great dad and the tone comes from the feeling of love. But that, I really hear his voice addressed so clearly to me. He shared a funny moment with his fans, as he made me feel as if it were a special moment between the two of us “.
In 1974, after a live concert on WLIR radio, Harry spoke on the station about his combined role as a musician and activist. “One of the things I’m in it for is to have some moments carved in stone, in a sense – not just based on the fact that at a particular point in music history, this kind of sound or something like that is I’m trying to I find things that 20 years from now can make some sense. “
It is clear that Harry Chapin underestimated the enduring power of his enduring legacy. Forty years later, we still listen to his wonderful music and talk about his monumental achievements. As Harry wrote in “All My Life’s a Circle” – my favorite song Chapin – “All my roads are winding. There are no clear principles and so far there are no dead ends.”