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JFK, Jr. & Harry Chapin Died Today; Their Legacies of Helping Others Endure.

They were always there, right in front of me: Harry Chapin, and John F. Kennedy, Jr., linked in death on the same exact date — July 16.

They died 18 years apart, their age difference, when they were both killed in terrible accidents at 38 years old.

Chapin’s brief, shooting-star-of-a-life ended in the fiery crash of a small car on the Long Island Expressway; JFK, Jr.’s, in the crash of a small aircraft, somewhere off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.

They were brothers in death, but their families — guided by strong women — and their mutual lust for life were intertwined in ways that one of Harry Chapin’s five children, Jason, would come to experience first-hand, in his work directly with JFK, Jr. and his “Reaching Up” non-profit organization.

The son of President John F. Kennedy founded “Reaching Up” in 1989 — eight years after Harry Chapin died — to give greater access to higher education and training to healthcare givers working with individuals with disabilities.

The organization’s work not only enlarged the scope of the Special Olympics founded by JFK, Jr’s Aunt Eunice Shriver, but it also shared the compassion and common sense of the life-enhancing work done by a national non-profit co-founded by singer/songwriter Harry Chapin at the peak of his fame — WhyHunger (WhyHunger.org) — still tackling food insecurity in local communities 49 years after it was formed, as well as providing job skills to lift people out of poverty. Chapin and Kennedy were answering similar calls to serve others, lessons left to them by their famous fathers.

Jason Chapin, who worked with Governor Mario M. Cuomo and was elected to two, four-year terms on the New Castle Town Council in Westchester, County, NY, has, along with his four siblings — Jono, Jaime, Jen and Josh, and their mother Sandy — carried on Harry Chapin’s work for WhyHunger and local food banks since 1975. He is the only Chapin to know JFK, Jr., and work with the “Reaching Up” organization and its City University of New York partner (CUNY) from 1995 to 2001.

“John was extremely passionate and dedicated to the organization, “ Jason Chapin said. “ I will always remember our Board Meetings which John chaired. He politely greeted everyone in the room when he arrived. He attended all of the annual Reaching Up Kennedy Fellows Convocations and was very friendly with the Fellows.”

It was precisely the same way JFK, Jr., greeted me at an 1996 non-profit breakfast at New York’s Plaza Hotel which I attended, representing Brooklyn’s Downstate Medical Center. I proudly wore a “We Believe in Brooklyn” button to boost working-class Brooklyn’s visibility among the Manhattan political and media elite.

JFK, Jr., sitting only a few seats away from me at the circular table along with George Stephanopoulos, spotted my button as soon as we got seated. He leaned over to me and whispered.

“My family believes in Brooklyn, too,” JFK, Jr. said.

“We believe deeply in the Bed Stuy Redevelopment Project,” an important initiative started during the too short Senate term of his uncle, Robert F. Kennedy, when he was NY’s U.S. Senator, from 1965–68. Bed Stuy was right in the heart of our patient service area for Downstate, the only public Academic Medical Center serving 2.5 million people in Brooklyn.

What JFK, Jr. may not have known then, was how important Jason Chapin’s grandfather, John Cashmore, was to his own father’s election as President of the United States in 1960. Cashmore, Brooklyn Borough President from 1940–1961, delivered 66% of Kings County’s vote to JFK, helping him beat Nixon in New York State by five percent, and win NY’s 45 electoral votes, giving Kennedy the 303 Electoral votes he needed to win the Presidency.

I told JFK, Jr. how important the Bed Stuy project was to the lifeblood of Central Brooklyn and how important his own father’s example of public service was to me in guiding my life’s work.

“You probably get tired of hearing that from so many people of my generation,” I said to JFK, Jr.

“I never get tired of hearing it,” he said. “It makes me proud to see how many people my father inspired.”

It’s the same line I’ve heard the Chapins say over many decades, with unending politeness and grace, when people tell them that Harry Chapin inspired them to commit their lives to fighting poverty, or improving public health, or helping refugees find access to food or shelter.

“I’m always amazed by how many people my father reached, how many lives he touched,” Jason says.

Harry Chapin, like JFK, Jr. was not content to sit still, and determined to use his celebrity to do good, performing 2000 concerts during his 10-year music career, with half of them as benefits, raising more than $6 million to fight hunger. Harry raised millions more on his radio “Hungerthons” with WhyHunger co-founder Bill Ayres, a former radio DJ and Catholic priest who Marched on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963 — to pressure JFK, Jr’s father to enact Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation.

As with JFK, Jr., Chapin was encouraged to take his activism, courage and compassion full-time to Washington, and run for the U.S. Senate from New York, which neither man lived long enough to do.

Harry recognized, as JFK, Jr., did with the creation of “Reaching Up” in 1989, that his name attached to any project could attract politicians, the media, the public and funding to the cause.

Chapin’s crusade against hunger and poverty, and his successful campaign to create the country’s first and only Presidential Hunger Commission with the help of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT.) and President Jimmy Carter, exhibited the same instincts that propelled JFK, Jr., to launch “Reaching Up” and George Magazine: they both knew that politics and pop culture had merged, and that those in a position to use their fame to improve human existence, and to demonstrate their love for life, had a responsibility to do so. It’s a model of being a compassionate, activist, public citizen carried on today by Wilson Cruz, Bono, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, Ashley Judd, George Clooney, Dolly Parton, Sean Penn, and many, many more.

Now, 43 years after Harry Chapin’s death and 25 years after JFK, Jr’s — both on July 16 — their lessons of lending their celebrity, and giving their lives, to improving the lives of others, are more crucial than ever before, especially in 2024, with the basic tenets of democracy, human and civil rights, economic and environmental justice all at great risk.

Despite fighting often daunting odds, Harry and JFK, Jr. never surrendered to despair, defeat, or negativity. Relentlessly, and with great joy and a zest for life, they took their celebrity and fame, and transformed it into inspiration and action, in pursuit of repairing a broken world.

We need their lessons of organizing for good, and serving others, today, perhaps more than we’ve ever needed them before.

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