This past week, we lost Paul Newman to cancer. The 83 year old actor was one of the few public figures that had an impact on my life, personally. I never met him, was never a huge fan, though I did like many of his films, and never really thought much of him-good or bad-until about five years ago. See, Mr. Newman was also a philanthropist. He started several institutions that were designed to help people. One of them, the Hole in the Wall Gang Camps, served as the model for the Victory Junction Gang Camps that was founded by the Petty’s of NASCAR fame. Mr. Newman’s camps, the first established in 1988, were for children who were ill. There, the children were just ‘normal’ kids doing things that most kids would do at a camp: swimming, climbing, just being kids. The difference, though, is that there were people who could care for the children and the visits were not a burden to the families either…the visits were free for the kids. Mr. Newman, according to many stories, would show up at the camp in Connecticut and have a meal with the kids or participate in some activity with the kids. Of course, most of the children had no clue as to who he was and he, apparently, relished his anonymity while he was with them. To them, he was just some old guy who was nice to them.
In 1999, Kyle Petty’s son, Adam, had visited one of the camps and decided that was something he wanted to do too. So, he took his idea to his dad and they set out to start working on the project. Unfortunately, a racing accident took Adam’s life only a few months later. Kyle and his wife Pattie took the idea and decided to make it a reality. Over the next five years, they raised money and gained corporate support to found and build the camp. They partnered with Mr. Newman’s camps and used them as the model to not only build and run the camp, but also how to get support for it as well. Built on land donated by Richard Petty, the camp opened in June of 2004. My son, who had been diagnosed with an immunodeficiency disorder several years before, attended the camp four times as a camper, twice during the family weekends and twice for a full week. While there, he was just a regular kid along with the others.
I am personally grateful to the Petty’s and to Mr. Newman. With the generosity of Paul Newman way back in 1988, a series of events were set in motion that directly affected my and my family. There is no way I could repay any of them for joy they brought to my son-and us, in turn-for those two weeks and two weekends just a short time ago.
Mr. Newman’s good will went much further than the camps. When he lost his son to drugs in 1978, he founded the Scot Newman Center to help fight drug abuse. His various food companies regularly donate millions of dollars to various charities and set an example in the corporate world. He was a larger than life personality with a larger than life heart to match.