Tuesday, September 30, 2008

This Is My Paul Newman Story

Our company, Allyis, donates time to maintain and host the Web site of Camp Korey , the newest camp in Paul Newman’s network of Hole in the Wall Camps. Because of that, in June 2007 I was invited to attend a grand opening event at the camp that Paul Newman himself was going to attend.

I was excited by the prospect of being in the same room with acting legend Paul Newman – Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy, Henry Gondorff from “The Sting”. I was a Paul Newman fan and I’ll admit, though by doing so I’ll reveal just how shallow I can be, it was the prospect of meeting Paul Newman more than the camp opening that had me excited that morning as I drove out to Carnation, WA.

The truth is I had imagined that Paul Newman was going to spend time with us personally to thank us for the work on the Web site. I’d have a chance to shake his hand and tell him I admired his films and then act really cool and nonplussed by his celebrity which would in turn make him admire me because, “Dammit, if there’s anything I hate its people who treat me like a celebrity and not the real person I am” he would think to himself.

When I got there the room was much bigger than I’d expected and there was a horde of media and a couple of hundred people taking seats on folding chairs in front of a stage. I was confused. How was Paul Newman going to grant a private audience to me and the rest of the group from Allyis in a setting like this?

The program got underway. Dignitaries and muckity mucks began filling the chairs on the stage – there was King County Executive Ron Sims, former Governor Gary Locke, the camp’s board officers, a couple of folks I didn’t recognize. And, sitting at one end of the stage, looking small, unassuming and, frankly, more like an old man than I’d expected, was Paul Newman. Others on the stage were wearing suits and ties, Newman was dressed in a white sweater and baseball cap, aviator sunglasses perched at the end of his nose.

Before Newman spoke, though, there were others. One, the father of Korey Rose, the boy after whom the camp is named. Korey died of cancer at age 16 and his father dedicated himself to making the camp a reality in his son’s memory. Then there was a man who, as a child, had attended a Hole in the Wall camp in California. He explained what a life changing experience it was, as a kid who spent most of his time in hospitals, to have the chance to go to camp like a “normal” kid. In a place where every kid was a sick kid, suddenly nobody was defined by their illness. They were just kids for that week, doing what kids do at camp.

I was beginning to realize by this time that this event was not about celebrity.

And then Paul Newman got up and walked to the podium. On this day that had started, in my mind, defined by Paul Newman, focused on seeing Paul Newman, all about Paul Newman, I now understood it wasn’t about Paul Newman at all. It was about the kids that would come to this camp. It was about kids who were suffering more pain and sadness than most of us ever encounter having a brief chance to experience joy. It was about a father seeing his dream come true and succeeding at something that perhaps healed some of his own pain, that perhaps made him feel connected to the boy he had held, had cherished, had worried over and had lost. It was about growing out of that pain and finding the strength to help others find their own strength.

The day wasn’t about Paul Newman at all. And Paul Newman knew that better than any of us. At the podium for no more than 3 minutes, I’m sure, he said “thanks for supporting Korey’s dad.” He said “every kid deserves the chance at least once to raise a little hell and just be a kid.” He said something about having “too many Budweiser suds” clouding his thinking. And then he said, with that Paul Newman gravel in his voice that sounded like every cantankerous character he ever played, and with a dismissive wave of his hand: “if I have any kind of legacy it won’t be for any movie I ever did. It’ll be for these camps.”

Then he nodded and he sat down.