Why I Cried When Harry Chapin Diedby Kevin White on 07/18/13
There are relatively few people whose death has made me cry. I didn’t cry when my mother died, for reasons I won’t go into here. I cried several days after my father died, when I was alone in the garage of his house and saw his old golf clubs, jarring the memory of having caddied for him sometimes when I was a kid. He and I had been very close, but showing emotion had never been his thing; and I guess I had learned that from him. I also cried a few times when patients of mine died - a few times from me having become exhausted trying to save them, and a few times when their death was just so damned sudden and unexpected. This especially happened when I was a medical intern and resident, and death and dying were relatively new to me. But I sat down and absolutely bawled, on July 16th 1981, when I heard on the radio that Harry Chapin had died.
Who was Harry Chapin? Many of you won’t know, because he died before your time... or because his music was never so main-stream as to be omnipresent on the radio. One song of his DID become a #1 hit, and that song plays regularly on the radio even today. That song – Cats in the Cradle – is perhaps one of the most thought-provoking popular songs ever written, one that calls every parent to be better. I can’t hear it without thinking about what type of father I have been to each of my four children, now all fully grown (my youngest just turned 17).
But that song and that life-influencing message isn’t why I cried for Harry Chapin. Harry Chapin was a songwriter who didn’t write for the rich and famous, or the cool and hip. He wrote for those among us who are sad or lonely or old or sick... or all of the above. He wrote about justice and injustice. He wrote about the poor and down-trod. He was the ultimate champion of the little guy. Once he released Cats in the Cradle and became financially secure for life, he dedicated himself almost full time to helping others, in particular the poor and hungry. Among all the performers of his day, it was he who spear-headed World Hunger Year, and was central to the creation of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger. When I saw him in concert, at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in about 1980, he was donating all proceeds from the sale of his book, and his share of proceeds from one out of every three concerts he performed to World Hunger. In all, he apparently supported 82 charities, and died driving a Volkswagen. In 1987, six years after his death, he was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for his social activism.