The Valerie Harper you might not know
Originally published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel
For decades, millions of Americans have felt like they know Valerie Harper from her TV role as Rhoda. Six years ago, we came to know Valerie in a new way as she shared what it was like to face terminal brain cancer.
There is still another role Valerie Harper played that deserves a spotlight even though she never did it for the credit. Let me tell you about the Valerie Harper you might not know.
In the first People magazine article about her 2013 diagnosis, Valerie said, “I just got a letter from a friend who’s getting the Congressional [Gold Medal] in April. I hope I’m around then.” She was. That friend was Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Grameen Bank Founder Muhammad Yunus and his invitation begins to reveal the impact Valerie Harper’s life has had.
Valerie has been a long-term supporter of empowering women through micro-loans for the poor around the world and of other issues benefiting families here and abroad. How long term? At a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing about micro-loans in 1987, former Republican Congressman Bob Dornan of California said, “I want to compliment my colleague Mr. Feighan (a Democrat of Ohio) and tell him what unusual lobbying his bill brings about. Sitting at home last week I got a call from a very important television star, Valerie Harper, otherwise known as Rhoda. And she said, ‘I just know you’re on this bill, Bob.’ And I said, ‘Well if I’m not, I’m going to get on it.’”
When Valerie Harper called Dornan and other committee members 32 years ago, about one million of the world’s most impoverished people had access to a microloan. A third of a century later, the count has risen to more than 124 million very poor families.
Valerie wrote about the impact her mother’s commitment to service had in her life when she wrote the foreword to my book Reclaiming Our Democracy: Healing the Break Between People and Government. “During the years I pursued my passion — a career in the performing arts,” she wrote, “a little voice inside me asked. ‘But is this of real value? Should I be doing something of more service — like my mom who is a teacher and nurse?’”
Valerie answered yes, and began using her celebrity to advance causes she cared about from the Equal Rights Amendment, to The Hunger Project, to ending homelessness in America.
“My celebrity became a tool I used to contribute to my community and my world,” she wrote. “But I must make the choice to do so and find the means….”
“Her generosity toward people is overwhelming,” said her husband, Tony Cacciotti, “she’s always doing for others….”
I saw that generosity when Valerie and Tony jumped into action to support the Candlelight Vigils my organization, the anti-poverty lobby RESULTS, was organizing the week before the 1990 World Summit for Children.
I called Valerie to tell her about the upcoming summit and its intention to reduce the tragedy of 40,000 children dying each day from largely preventable malnutrition and disease. From my simple description came an avalanche of commitment. Over the next two months, she organized two briefings to bring celebrities onboard and a slew of national television appearances.
She also organized a full-page ad signed by 140 celebrities that appeared in the New York Times when Presidents Bush and Gorbachev were meeting in the U.S., urging the two leaders to attend the World Summit for Children. Valerie was on the phone day and night, talking to celebrities and their assistants about the summit and the ad. Signers included Frank Sinatra, Jackson Browne, Sting and Elizabeth Taylor, who gave her okay from a hospital bed.
The day after the ad appeared, UNICEF Executive Director Jim Grant wrote Valerie, Tony and their daughter Christina: “I returned last night from an encouraging audience with His Holiness the Pope on the future of the world’s children and our joint efforts to make a difference. I returned to discover the New York Times advertisement. Clearly you and your colleagues have made a dramatic difference for the World Summit for Children and for children the world over.”
Twenty-nine years after that summit, UNICEF reports that child deaths have been cut by more than half; more than 24,000 young lives are saved every day thanks to the programs for which Valerie and others advocated.
Valerie was no mere spectator to that change; she was one of the best supporting actors you could ask for. She didn’t do it for applause or to get her name in lights, but at the final curtain call in this lifetime, she deserves a standing ovation for the difference she has made for millions of the world’s poorest families.
Sam Daley-Harris founded RESULTS, the Microcredit Summit and Civic Courage. Valerie Harper has served on the RESULTS board since 1986.