retail news in context, analysis with attitude

“What we have here is a failure to communicate,” Paul Newman’s Luke Jackson says during the character’s final moments in “Cool Hand Luke,” mocking with ironic humor the phrase uttered with far more seriousness by Strother Martin’s prison captain earlier in the 1967 movie.

Communication was never a problem for the real-life Paul Newman, who died last Friday at age 83 of complications from lung cancer. In addition to his sterling career as an actor and movie star – and make no mistake, he was both – Newman’s legacy may well be seen his extraordinary philanthropy, most impressively with the Newman’s Own food products that have resulted in the donation of more than $250 million to various charities. Started as a lark with his friend, writer AE Hotchner, the product line has grown to include everything from spaghetti sauce to salsa, lemonade to cookies, and a variety of organics.

There was never any doubt about the goal of the Newman’s Own products. It never seemed to be about ego or self-aggrandizement. Using as a mantra the phrase “shameless exploitation in pursuit of the common good,” Newman once told an interviewer that he wanted to be like the farmer who nurtured the soil from which his crops emerged; he felt lucky, and wanted to give something back. And there may be few better examples of good humored and dedicated philanthropy.

In addition to his acting career and food business, Newman also was a passionate racecar driver. When I was learning to drive a racecar at the Skip Barber Racing School, at the Lime Rock, Connecticut, track where Newman often raced, one of the teachers told us about a recent race in which Newman (then in his late 70’s) was competing. During the race, his windshield cracked, and got to the point where Newman couldn’t continue. Newman, he said, pulled the car into the pit and proceeded to kick the windshield out of the car, and then got back behind the wheel and finished the race. It didn’t matter, the teacher said, that Newman couldn’t win. What mattered was that he was going to finish what he started.

So when I think of Paul Newman now, I don't just think of the excellent food products that bear his name and likeness. I don't just think of the characters he played in the movies, including favorites such as Butch Cassidy in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Henry Gondorff in “The Sting,” Reg Dunlop in “Slap Shot,” or Frank Galvin in “The Verdict.”

No, I think of him kicking out that windshield, intent on finishing what he started and doing what he said he’d do.

No failure to communicate there.

KC's View:
This would be a good time for the food industry to follow Newman’s example. My friend Jack Allen, who has helped shape so many minds and attitudes at Michigan State University, wrote to me over the weekend to suggest that the industry ought to come together in some sort of major promotion of Newman’s Own products, with all profits going to the Hole in the Wall Gang Camps, which Newman started to serve children with serious illnesses.

It is an excellent idea, especially now, when so many eyes are focused on economic crises and financial bailouts. What a good time to look beyond ourselves and do something not just to honor the memory of Paul Newman, but to actually do some good.