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Bill Pere Serves Up LUNCH

Published on 4/16/2004, in The Mystic Times

Mystic - What started as a one-time musical tribute to the late musician/activist Harry Chapin has become a lasting effort to educate the community about the problems of hunger and homelessness in our midst.
     LUNCH, Local United Network to Combat Hunger, is the fruit that was harvested from that first Harry Chapin Legacy Show, and 15 years later it continues to feed local hunger-relief organizations.
     Mystic resident Bill Pere founded LUNCH in 1989, with the hopes of doing a benefit concert to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Chapin's death in 1991. Together with a group of local children, he produced the first Harry Chapin Legacy Show to raise money to donate to hunger organizations.
     "When it was over," Pere recalled, "people asked when we were going to do it again."  So, he did it again. And again. Many performances and 14 commercial CDs later, Bill Pere and the LUNCH bunch have raised over $300,000 for various local and national social service organizations.
     Although LUNCH is a somewhat recent addition to Pere's life, the music has been there since childhood.   "Music is something I always did, from the time I was little," he said. "I could never imagine life without music or songwriting." He has memories of sharing his parents' love of music, and of receiving musical-toy Christmas presents.
He became more serious about music as a teenager, teaching himself how to play guitar and write songs. He said he learned early that "one could say important things through song, and people are more likely to listen."
     However, when he began his post-high school education at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, he chose not to major in music. He decided that "if that's what you have to do for a living, then it's not fun anymore."   Pere became a scientist instead, eventually earning a graduate degree in molecular biology. Along the way, he took some courses in drama, orchestration and music theory, but they were just for fun.
He continued to write and play music for fun as well, and earned the Bucknell University Award for Outstanding Creativity for his rock opera "Of Time to Come" in 1974.
     Pere eventually found his way over to Pfizer Inc in Groton.  "I designed the computer systems that scientists used to organize information from biological testing," he said.  While some might think his scientific and musical selves would have clashed, Pere disagrees.
"    There was a definite synergy between the two," he said. Both aspects of his life required and sustained creativity. In addition, "I never would have been able to manage these large scale productions if I hadn't managed projects at Pfizer," he said.
It didn't hurt that he worked on the discovery end of the business, which he said required more creativity than if he had been working on the development end. The flexibility of his position also helped him stay on his toes.
     "I pretty much designed my own position there for 23 years," he said.
Now retired from the science biz, his musical self has free reign. He uses that free time and energy to devote himself to LUNCH.
LUNCH "uses the power of popular music to produce positive social action," he said.      "We address issues of hunger, homelessness. We support several social service agencies in the region."
     Since the beginning, LUNCH has always used a group of children from grade four through high school as its ensemble. Pere said there is usually a core group of about 20 children, and that number can go as high as 60 when doing a full, scripted production.
"We use kids in shows to show them they can make a difference," he said. He hopes the students learn to work toward "a world free of tolerance and injustice."
He has seen children learn about social issues while working with LUNCH, and his pride was evident as he talked about it.
     "A lot of the kids wind up doing school projects based on some of the things they learn here," he said.    And where does he find his kids? He just attracts them. "We've never advertised; it's always been word of mouth. And there's never a shortage."
Pere's work with LUNCH has not gone unnoticed by the music industry or the community at large. The walls of his home studio are graced with community service awards, given to him by various organizations.
     He has twice been voted Connecticut songwriter of the year, he was named Connecticut's Official State Troubadour in 1995, and in 2003 the national Independent Music Conference named him Independent Artist of the Year. None of his work is done as a solo artist; it has all been through LUNCH.
     One offshoot of LUNCH has been Pere's association with the family of the late Harry Chapin, known for '70s hit songs "Cat's in the Cradle" and "Taxi." That association began when Pere "had the privilege of presenting a check to Sandy Chapin" for World Hunger Year, an organization Chapin started before his death in a 1981 car accident.
     Word about the Harry Chapin show spread, eventually reaching the ears of Chapin's brother Steve, who then came to a meeting of the Connecticut Songwriters Association as a guest speaker. Steve had played keyboard in his brother's band, and brought the remaining members of Chapin's band to play with LUNCH.
"Now we perform with them from time to tiime," Pere said.
     Pere has also performed with Chapin's daughter Jen, whom he called "an accomplished artist in her own right." In fact, Jen Chapin will be appearing with the LUNCH ensemble on April 17 at Three Rivers College in Norwich, having just returned from her own national tour.  "We've come to know pretty much the whole extended family," Pere said of the Chapins.
     Not content to just do LUNCH, Pere and his wife, Kay, are also involved in the Mystic River Folk Concerts, presented monthly throughout Mystic's 350th anniversary celebration year. This month's concert will be on Friday, April 16, at Union Baptist Church on High Street in Mystic, and will feature Kay Pere, musicians from Boston and San Francisco, and Fitch High School senior Chadene Zack. The concert series benefits MASH, Mystic Area Shelter and Hospitality, which is trying to secure a shelter that will allow families to stay together while homeless.
     Pere said Harry Chapin told musicians to hold two concerts - one for yourself, and one for the other guy. Pere seemed proud when he said that with LUNCH, "we do all for the other guy."


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