Some of the 135,000 kids who passed through the gates of a Hole in the Wall camp assumed the old guy mowing the grass or driving the van was hired help.
That is, until Newman's own mug gave the famous benefactor away.
"He was sitting at lunch with a table of 8-year-olds one day," recalls David Horvitz, board chair of the Hole in the Wall Camps, "and one of the kids kept looking at him and looking at him. And he asked, 'Is this you on the lemonade carton?' And Paul said, 'Yup.' And the kid asked, 'How long were you lost?' Paul loved to tell that story."
Newman—who died at age 83 on Sept. 26—made himself right at home at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, a summer getaway for ill children he founded in Ashford, Conn., in 1988, and at the 10 member camps it spawned around the world. For the children, the camps are even more than a home—they're a haven. Each camper attends for 5 to 10 days in the summer, all expenses paid thanks to donors that include Newman's Own Foundation. "It's as if your illness vanishes when you get there," says Ben Gabelman, 18, who has spinal muscular atrophy and has been a camper at Double H Ranch in Lake Luzerne, N.Y., every summer since he was 7. "You can just be a regular kid."
Though it may not be so regular to shoot a game of pool with Fast Eddie himself—which was what Gabelman did when he first met The Hustler. "At the time I didn't get it, but my parents were pretty amazed!" says Gabelman. The actor quietly spent time at several of the camps every summer, occasionally meeting parents but preferring to spend time with the children. He would eat with them, chauffeur them around or test his fishing skills against theirs. With a 24-hour medical team and at least one adult for every two campers as support staff, the camps also offer other outdoor staples like archery, boating, arts and crafts and—naturally—theater. "Stephen was able to do the very physical things that were hard for him to do at home," says Alex Milmoe, whose son passed away from a brain tumor in 1994 at age 15. "At camp, he was able to ride horses and go fishing and swim in the pool. I was never fearful because I knew the doctors there were so good."
With Horvitz and board members—who include Newman's daughter Clea—carrying on Newman's work, the Association of Hole in the Wall Camps is developing more camps to open in the U.S. within the next five years.
Families the camps have helped are giving back too. Stephen Milmoe's parents and three siblings volunteer as counselors each year. "The camp has been a lifeline for our family," Alex says.
It's also a resting place for her son, whose ashes they spread on the grounds of Newman's first camp in Connecticut. "Stephen's fine now; he's up there with Paul," says Alex, tearfully. "Last week I had a vision of Paul approaching the pearly gates and being greeted by a whole group of cheering kids—my son included—yelling, 'Hey, Paul, c'mon! Hey, Paul!'"•
For more information about Hole in the Wall Camps, visit www.holeinthewallcamps.org