The Sparkle In His Eyes: remembering Paul Newman’s vision of camp

Paul Newman would have been 89 today. He founded a charity that is very close to my heart. Below is a little bit about why he was, and is, a giant amongst men.

In Newman’s favourite film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, two friends escape the shackles of everyday life for adventures in the great unknown. Paul Newman wanted to recreate that feeling for children affected by serious illness, to build an environment of safety and foster a spirit of acceptance and love, where these kids could have their own adventures free from the shackles of illness. Paul was a great believer in luck, and acknowledged the extraordinary role of luck in his life, and recognised that some kids were not as fortunate, and had pretty rotten luck. He wanted to create an environment where, like Butch and Sundance, these kids could run away from things in the outside world. Having almost-accidentally started an international-famous natural food company, which had started as a joke with his friend A.E. Hotchner, Newman was able to direct the profits to charity, enabling him to realise his vision. He built a campsite in his home state of Connecticut that mirrored the old western ranches lived in by Butch Cassidy and co. The campsite was built with record speed, fulfilling one of Paul’s two rules for his vision; that the camp be built yesterday. The other was that it be named after his gang from the film, The Hole In The Wall Gang Camp.

With the help of the state’s leading paediatrician, 288 children with serious and life-threatening illnesses were able to stay at the new camp. For Paul, all he wanted was for them to be able to “kick back and raise a little hell.”. But the feedback from campers, families and doctors following camp was astounding. Camp seemed to have a lasting effect. Some doctors even reported kids’ blood counts and disease markers to have improved.

This is better than what I envisaged, and it grows every year. Every year we add something.

Paul’s vision, the sparkle in his blue eyes, has grown to become an international family of camps serving over 58,000 children affected by serious illness. It is called the SeriousFun Children’s Network, so-called because of the scientifically researched and developed programme of Therapeutic Recreation that underpins everything at camp. The spirit experienced at camp is unlike anything you could find in everyday life. It is a place of deep love, acceptance and friendship, and through these, a place of healing. Each camp has a group of doctors and nurses who give up their time to make it possible for the campers to be safe at camp. Here, a doctor from the camp in Hungary, Bator Tabór, wonders “does camp heal”?.

Paul Newman was a man unlike any other. He created an enormous food company as a joke with a friend. He became a professional racing driver, winning huge international races, at the age of 52, because he wanted to. He refused, much to the puzzlement of his fellow Hollywood stars, to buy a luxury yacht to indulge his love of fishing, choosing instead to stick with his battered wooden boat, because he didn’t really need one. He was the only non-politician to appear on Richard Nixon’s famed enemy list (although was disappointed he was only listed at 19) after leaving the Republican then-president a rude note on the steering wheel of the car Newman hired when he found out Nixon rented it at the weekends. After the death of his son from a drug overdose, Paul founded the Scott Newman Foundation to bring education about drugs to America in a gargantuan move to change the ‘war on drugs’ for the better. Way ahead of his time, and having shared an apartment with the writer Christopher Isherwood, Paul was also a big advocate for gay rights, saying:

I’m a supporter of gay rights. And not a closet supporter either. From the time I was a kid, I have never been able to understand attacks upon the gay community. There are so many qualities that make up a human being… by the time I get through with all the things that I really admire about people, what they do with their private parts is probably so low on the list that it is irrelevant.

Newman did anything and everything he could for the common good. It is this attitude and spirit that flows through camp wherever you look. Last year, the original Hole In The Wall Gang Camp celebrated its 25th anniversary, documented in this short film. Camp is a place where anything is possible, and is possibly the closest thing you can get to magic. For this, Paul, we thank you.



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