Paul Newman belonged to the world, but he held a special place at Kenyon, where he first made his mark as an actor, and where he left a long legacy in the form of steady, generous support, culminating in a recent $10 million gift for scholarships.
Newman died on September 26 at the age of 83, a movie star who reached beyond the big screen to take on roles as an activist, entrepreneur, race car driver, and philanthropist. The personal force fueling those enterprises was familiar to the generation of students and professors at Kenyon in the years just after World War II. They knew "P.L." as a young Navy veteran who discovered, on their insular, all-male campus, not only a vocation but also a capacity to command attention and admiration through whimsy, charm, mischief, and verve, as well as talent.
A 1949 graduate who majored in "speech" (the field that covered drama) and who appeared in at least nine Kenyon theatrical productions, Newman said on many occasions, "I owe Kenyon a great deal." Five Kenyon presidents spanning nearly half a century in the College's history have been able to say the same of him. Beyond regular gifts to the Kenyon Fund and a stream of unpublicized contributions for a wide variety of projects, Newman helped fund the James E. Michael Professorship in Playwriting, created the College's most prestigious acting awards, lent his prestige to the Kenyon Festival Theater, and returned to campus in 1978 to direct the first production in the new Bolton Theater. The $10 million endowed scholarship fund was announced during the June 2007 launch of the College's current campaign.
" Kenyon is extraordinarily proud of Paul Newman," said President S. Georgia Nugent. "Not only because he was a great actor — which he certainly was. But because he was a great actor who made a unique and visionary choice to become a great philanthropist, reaching out to help others. Today, Hollywood's young stars very often take up philanthropic causes, to address some of our society's ills. Before the example of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, that social commitment on the part of media figures was unknown.
"I know, from conversations with Paul, that he credited Kenyon with much of his confidence and success on the stage," Nugent continued. "I hope — and believe — that his Kenyon education also contributed to his decision to commit himself deeply to philanthropy. Although his primary commitment was to his 'Hole in the Wall' camps for children with life-threatening diseases, Paul never forgot his alma mater. He remained very generous to Kenyon throughout his lifetime, most recently contributing the endowment of $10 million to fund scholarships for 'the neediest of the needy.' This attention to equity and social justice characterized Paul Newman's commitments throughout his life, and we are proud that the 'Newman's Own Scholars' will continue that tradition."
Kenyon awarded an honorary degree to Newman in 1961, when he had already achieved fame as an actor but well before his memorable performances in such hits as Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Sting. The citation praised him for the variety of roles he had undertaken and for "the peculiar kind of theatrical skill which can make a weak line, or a bad scene, seem bold and almost original." It also evoked "the lively and irreverent young man" who became something of a campus celebrity as an "itinerant laundryman," a "perennial master of ceremonies" in the boisterous T-Barracks, a "marathon talker" at the local watering hole, and the writer, producer, director, and star of a satirical student musical called The Kenyon Revue.
Newman entered Kenyon in July 1946, joining one of the summer sessions that the College had instituted to accommodate an influx of veterans. He had served nearly three years in the Navy, working as a radioman on torpedo planes in postings that included the Mariana Islands and Hawaii. Prior to enlisting, he had spent a semester at Ohio University.
His Kenyon application mentioned theater as an extracurricular activity, noting his boyhood involvement in the children's theater of the Cleveland Playhouse as well as acting roles at Shaker Heights High School. He also acknowledged being "an ardent 'boogie-woogie' pianist." But his career goal was business. Looking perhaps to his father, a partner in a sporting-goods store, he wrote that he intended to "enter the retail merchandising field and later, perhaps, to hold an executive position with a large department store." For three semesters, economics figured centrally in his coursework. He was also a member of the football team.
The T-Barracks, where Newman lived, was a large T-shaped building, part of a complex officially called Harcourt Village but nicknamed Splinterville. Constructed with federal funds as temporary housing for servicemen attending Kenyon under the G.I. Bill, the nineteen buildings (now long gone) housed 175 bachelor students along with thirty-three families. (Another resident of the T-Barracks was Olof Palme '48, who would become the prime minister of Sweden.)
Life in and around the barracks was rowdy, and Newman often seemed to be at the center of the festivities. In addition to hosting parties in the T-Barracks, he was a regular at Dorothy Dean's, a basement bar and grill that later Kenyon generations knew as Dorothy's Lunch. Newman "gave the impression that drinking and carousing were his primary priorities," wrote the late Robert G. Davis '50, in a reminiscence of that time. The passage beside the future star's photo in the 1949 Reveille, Kenyon's student yearbook, says, "Prone to getting out of hand on long and trying evenings."
Newman also made a name for himself on campus as a creative entrepreneur, displaying the pluck that would resurface some forty years later when he transformed his home-mixed salad dressing recipe into Newman's Own, the food company that donates its profits to charity. At Kenyon, he ran a laundry service out of his dorm room, later renting space in the village. According to Davis, he also "cornered the flower and corsage market," taking orders before Dance Weekends and driving to Cleveland to make the purchases at a wholesale florist shop.
Former Kenyon trustee and board chair David Horvitz '74 H'98, who would become a friend of Newman's, working closely with him on developing summer camps for children with serious illnesses, remembers stories that the actor told about his "laundryman" days. "He told me that he had trouble getting the laundry business going," said Horvitz, "so he began to offer one beer with each load of laundry dropped off. Business took off."
If Newman liked to have a good time, he also stood out for his "poise, self-assurance, and freedom of spirit," wrote Davis. "Paul's enticing charisma, striking good looks, and spontaneous inventiveness set him apart from other students."
It was spontaneity, after a fashion, that turned Newman toward his collegiate career in drama. The story, which Newman himself told often, involved a group of Kenyon football players in a Mount Vernon bar, a brawl with some locals, and a night in jail. In the aftermath of the escapade, Newman found himself kicked off the football team, looking for another way to engage his energies — and finding the theater.
James E. Michael, the legendary professor who is considered the founder of the College's modern drama program, remembered "having trouble not casting Paul as the lead in every play," according to a 1982 profile of the actor in Time magazine. Newman himself was much more modest. "I was terrorized by the emotional requirements of being an actor," he told Time.
But he earned his share of stage glory in Gambier, as he embraced his new major and threw himself into college productions. Newman won the role of Hildy Johnson in The Front Page, his first Kenyon performance, in 1947. He went on to appear in productions of The Taming of the Shrew, The Alchemist, R.U.R., Heartbreak House, and an adaptation of Anouilh's Antigone, among other plays. A 1949 production of Charley's Aunt, which ran less than a week after the tragic Old Kenyon fire and helped to lift spirits in the mourning campus, featured Newman in drag. "Dressed in demure black," wrote the Collegian, "he looked and acted convincingly enough to convince almost all that he might be the real aunt."
His Kenyon Revue in the same year was "the most rousing student musical in recent Kenyon history," said the 1961 honorary degree citation. "That production caused a high mortality among faculty and administration egos," the citation continued, "and almost decided the Dean of the College to take up another line of business." In addition to writing, producing, and directing the show, Newman played the role of Frank Bailey, the dean.
The contours of Newman's post-Kenyon career are well known. Graduation led to summer stock, to the Yale School of Drama, to study with Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan at the Actors Studio, and to a string of successes in show business. Less well known to the public, and even to many at Kenyon, is Newman's career as a benefactor of his alma mater. The College's files are filled with records of Newman's gifts, along with records of his correspondence with Kenyon officials, including presidents Edward Lund, William Caples, Philip Jordan Jr., Robert Oden Jr., and S. Georgia Nugent.
Generous contributions, made without fanfare, supported the Kenyon Fund as well as a series of projects and campaigns. In 1958, Newman created the Paul Newman Trophy, awarded annually at Honors Day for the best acting performance by a male student. In 1971, two years after the arrival of women at the College, he added the Joanne Woodward Trophy, for the best performance by a female student. The Woodward Trophy honors his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, who would eventually receive an honorary degree herself from Kenyon, in 1981.
Woodward and Newman were both active in the Kenyon Festival Theater, which enlivened Gambier summers between 1980 and 1984. Newman contributed to the establishment of the James E. Michael Chair, held by Playwright-in-Residence Wendy MacLeod.
He delighted the campus community in December 1978, when he came to Gambier to direct Michael Cristofer's C.C. Pyle and the Bunion Derby, the inaugural production in the newly built Bolton Theater. One observer noted the extraordinary rapport he developed with the student cast and crew, who marveled at their good fortune and came away with enormous respect for Newman "as a director and as a human being."
Actress Allison Janney '82, who appeared in that production and who would earn her own measure of fame on stage, screen, and television, credits Newman and Woodward with helping her fashion a vocation. "I'm an actress because Paul Newman went to Kenyon College," she has said.
Newman, in turn, credited Kenyon with giving him a solid intellectual foundation and widening his cultural perspective. "He has told me that Kenyon opened his eyes to great literature, to the value of a liberal arts education, and to the idea of education for education's sake," said Horvitz. "Kenyon taught him to write and hence to think clearly. He was a reluctant student, but he absorbed more than he thought, and as he reflected on his Kenyon education, its value to him became more apparent."
Newman's generosity continued through the "Claiming Our Place" campaign. He contributed $2 million, and he and Woodward served as honorary cochairs of the campaign from 1998 to 2001. The current campaign, "We Are Kenyon," entered its public phase with a gala in June 2007 at which Newman's $10 million scholarship gift was announced. The endowed fund will aid first-generation college students as well as students from minority and other underrepresented groups. Admitted as Newman's Own Foundation Scholars, the students will have the opportunity to pursue a Kenyon education with financial aid free of the burden of loans.
Thanking Newman for the gift, President S. Georgia Nugent wrote, "Given all of your interests and your philanthropic commitments, you could easily have forgotten this lovely little college on a hill ... But you have never done that. This says so much about your character and is one of the many reasons we are so very proud to call you a son of Kenyon."