The wires were buzzing earlier this week with stories of a terminal lung cancer diagnosis for Paul Newman, who has reportedly turned over $120 million—the entire value of his ownership in Newman's Own—to charity. The morbid headlines alone were enough to cast readers into despair, even though Newman himself has humorously denied the reports. While the idea of Paul Newman dying a painful, difficult death is admittedly hard to bear, the media frenzy surrounding this story is eclipsing an important point: Obsessing over Paul Newman's impending death is time that would be better spent reflecting on his extraordinarily inspiring life.
Despite his legendary good looks (see Adam Sandler's "Chanukah Song" lyrics) and enviably successful Hollywood career, Newman opted for a private life defined by principled conviction and genuine humility. He's been married to his second wife, actress Joanne Woodward, for 50 years, and is said to have described his commitment to monogamy with, "Why go out for a hamburger when you have steak at home?"
Newman's life hasn't been totally charmed; his first marriage ended in divorce, and his only son died of a drug overdose in 1978. Two years after his son Scott passed away, Newman found a way to create something good from an otherwise life-shattering experience. In 1980, he founded The Scott Newman Center, which works to prevent substance abuse through education, and runs a camp for children and families whose lives have been affected by drugs, alcohol abuse, or domestic violence.
Beyond that, he's all but redefined the concept of corporate philanthropy, achieving the seemingly-impossible by donating 100% of the proceeds from his wonderful company, Newman's Own, to various charitable organizations. Together with business partner and friend A.E. Hotchner, with whom he founded the company in 1982, Newman has earned and donated over $200 million.
It doesn't stop there. Newman's Own is much more than just another "celebrity brand," as chronicled in Newman and Hotchner's book, Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good. Unlike "Rocky Graziano's spaghetti sauce, Mickey Mantle's barbecue sauce, Nolan Ryan's All-Star Fruit Snacks, [or] Gloria Vanderbilt's salad dressing," Newman's Own had a mission from the beginning: Newman was intent upon creating a product made with all natural ingredients. He was ahead of his time: As explained in Shameless Exploitation, "at that time, almost all salad dressings, especially the mass-market ones, contained sugar, artificial coloring, chemical preservatives, gums, and God knows what."
His first product, a simple oil and vinegar salad dressing, paved the way for a product line that now includes all-natural pasta sauce, salsa, lemonade, steak sauce, cereal, and popcorn, not to mention an organic line founded with his daughter in 1993, which includes pretzels, cookies, popcorn, chocolate bars, peppermint cups, peanut butter cups, olive oil and vinegar, dried fruit, fair trade coffee, and pet food.
Newman dedicated himself to creating healthier products and giving all of the proceeds away but, of course, he didn't stop there. Through Newman's Own, he initiated and funds the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, which "provides children with cancer and other serious illnesses and conditions a [free] camping experience of the highest quality, while extending year-round support to their families and health care providers."
He also helped to start the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, which is the "only international forum of business CEOs and chairpersons pursuing a mission focused exclusively on corporate philanthropy."
Amazingly, this is just an incomplete, hazy snapshot of what Newman has accomplished in his 83 years. Altruistic, creative, entrepreneurial, and dedicated to the common good, Paul Newman is a great symbol of what each of us can achieve when we allow ourselves to be fearlessly—but thoughtfully—guided by our hearts.