Sunday, August 10, 2008

Diary of a Mensch

The uniquely down-to-earth actor Paul Newman may be dying of cancer. The Cleveland native left the family sporting goods business behind for immortality on the screen (we especially loved him in Cool Hand Luke and The Verdict, and a couple years ago we highlighted this classic bit of dialogue from the movie Hud). In the late '60s and early '70s, he was second only to John Wayne as a box office draw. But Old Blue Eyes has become equally larger than life in some quarters for his charitable good works. This nicely comprehensive Vanity Fair tribute puts the total proceeds to charity over the years from his Newman's Own operations at about $250 million (it included support of his favorite leftie pub, The Nation). The piece also nicely fleshes out how his lifelong embrace of regular guyism has made him such an enduring legend, possibly even eclipsing his fame from his movie career (from which he retired last year). My favorite story from this piece is about a camp for kids he founded in the mid-80s.
Around 1985 he came up with the idea for a summer camp for children with life-threatening diseases: cancer, sickle-cell anemia, H.I.V./aids. He envisioned the camp as a place where kids can experience the joys of childhood without compromising their medical needs. Campers would pay nothing. The idea popped into his head one morning, and Newman told Life magazine in 1988, “I’ve had friends who died young. Life is whimsical. Longevity is an incredible gift, and some people don’t get to enjoy it.” Newman named the camp the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, after Butch Cassidy’s group of outlaws. He wanted the site—300 sweeping, wooded acres in Ashford, Connecticut, with a big lake fronting the property—to be unconventionally designed, like a Western town Butch might have lived in...This past year, at one of the usual meetings of parents and children at the original camp, Newman showed up; crowds pressed close. The mother of one little girl spoke to Ray Lamontagne, the head of the camp’s board. Her daughter wanted to tell Paul Newman something, but she couldn’t get over to him because she was in a wheelchair. Lamontagne fought his way through the crowd and brought Newman back to the little girl, and he knelt down by her wheelchair. “For the first time in my life I have a friend,” the little girl told him. “I’ve never had a friend before, because I’ve been in a wheelchair most of my life, so kids avoided me. So thank you, Mr. Newman, for this camp.” Newman had tears in his eyes.
People like this don't come along every day. May his final days be filled with all the love and tenderness that he showed for so many over his long and fruitful life.


At 10:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The human consequences of kindness and generosity are coming home to roost, and it is tempting to see them as the outcome of gratitude and decency."
-(Sort of an adaptation of your quote from yesterday)

Does business have a moral dimension? Because of their starkly opposite consequences, the stories from yesterday and today reveal some of the higher and lower moral boundaries available to business. Anywhere there is choice involved, ethics set the beat of the music. Echoing in the chasms between good and evil, the results of our choices inevitably touch those around us. For those who refuse to acknowledge that truth, writers who expose the naked truth of corruption, greed, and injustice do the public an essential service; they hold up a mirror to those who refuse to see the truth. Those who spotlight the good when it is found give their readers not only a vision of what CAN be done, but can give helpful hints that act as signposts along the way.

Journalism has a moral dimension too, a fact that the framers of our constitution knew well. Forums like this one and the growing number of "conversations" available are valuable tools for honing informed, thoughtful, and responsible citizens. (Patriotic music plays in the background- haha) For those who openly embrace no moral code, the consideration of consequences and the old golden rule still set the standard. Good writers give us a chance to "walk a mile in someone else's moccasins," as we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste the consequences of moral choices that have shaped the path their "subjects" walk. Thanks for the venue, John.

Write on!

At 1:21 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Too many writers seem to forget about the moral dimensions of journalism, I'm afraid. Thanks for the reminder.

At 11:57 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Newman has been one of my heroes for ages, for all these reasons. Mostly for his non-Hollywood work, to be honest. Have you ever read that book he co-wrote about how the Newman's Own food business began? It's a laugh-out-loud read on one level, and inspirational on another. It takes a really exceptional person, in some ways, to be a regular guy.

My late Dad and Paul Newman were the same age, something Dad always enjoyed telling people. Dad thought Newman was a great man, for all of these same reasons. Plus, he liked the salad dressing and the pasta sauce.

At 2:15 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

"It takes a really exceptional person, in some ways, to be a regular guy." That may be the most evocative sentence I've come across all week, Art. And I did learn about that book from the Vanity Fair article, and will now make a point to at least breeze through it a little next time I'm at the bookstore.


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