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Paul Newman’s Upstate Legacy: A Glimpse Inside Double H Ranch

Lake Luzerne’s Double H Ranch, which Newman co-founded, epitomizes the Hollywood icon’s giving heart.

Paul Newman (left), co-founder of Double H Ranch, always enjoyed interacting with its campers; (right) the Oscar-winning Newman in 1963. (Lefthand photo, Double H Ranch)

When I was a young woman, my girlfriends and I had crushes on the Big Two—superstar actors Robert Redford and Paul Newman—and we always used to argue about which one was sexier. “Robert Redford is such a hunk,” one friend would say. “Oh, but Paul Newman’s eyes are so blue,” I’d respond. It’s Hollywood’s fault; film directors made it exceedingly difficult for us to choose, casting Redford and Newman together in classics such as Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and The Sting. Even if we couldn’t make up our minds, that didn’t stop us from worshipping the devilishly handsome duo. 

Years later, imagine how surprised I was to learn that I lived a short ride away from a destination co-founded and envisioned by those dreamy blue eyes. Besides being an Oscar-winning actor, Newman was also an exceedingly generous philanthropist, and one of his greatest achievements was Double H Ranch, an all-seasons camp he co-founded that was custom built for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families, just 30 minutes north of Saratoga Springs in the woodsy Adirondack village of Lake Luzerne. Every year, kids ages 6 to 16, dealing with debilitating illnesses such as cancer, blood disorders, HIV/AIDS and neuromuscular disorders flock to Double H to enjoy fun, activity-filled days, surrounded by new and old friends. From June to August, campers bunk in cottages at the one-of-a-kind Western-themed camp, which includes around-the-clock pediatric, hematologic and oncologic care. And when the snow flies, children zoom down the camp’s private ski mountain with the help of adaptive equipment and under the watchful eyes of the camp’s countless caring volunteers. Double H even has a “traveling camp” program that visits kids in hospitals across the state. And for more than a decade, when Newman was in his golden years, he’d regularly—oftentimes, secretly—fly into Warren County Airport via private jet to visit Double H. He’d eat chicken fingers in the dining hall and cheer as the kids tackled the high ropes course in the treetops. “He genuinely loved the people in this region,” says Max Yurenda, Double H’s CEO and executive director. “He loved Double H, and how we fulfilled his dream.”

A camper ziplining at Double H Ranch. (Double H Ranch)

The heartwarming tale of how Double H Ranch came to the region begins in 1988, when Newman opened The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, which has a similar ethos to Double H, in Ashford, CT. When Newman’s friend, Charles R. Wood, a businessman-philanthropist, who founded one of Lake George’s most iconic amusement parks, the Great Escape, heard about Hole in the Wall, he set out to found one of his own in the Lake George area. A determined, nose-to-the-grindstone kind of guy, Wood bought a 320-acre dude ranch and convinced Newman to come on board as his partner. “Charley won Paul over,” says Yurenda. “They had absolute, deep respect for one another.” At the time, Newman wasn’t even planning on launching a second camp, but his friend’s enthusiasm for the project convinced Newman to expand on the concept. A year after Double H opened its doors in 1993, Newman founded Barretstown, another kids-in-need-centric camp in Ireland. 

Today, Double H runs on an annual operating budget of $4.1 million—it’s free for kids, more than 70 percent of whom are from New York State—and is one of 30 like-minded camps and programs throughout the world, all of which are part of the Newman-founded SeriousFun Children’s Network. “Since our inception, Double H Ranch has served more than 65,000 children and family members,” says Yurenda. While ten percent of that budget is paid for by Wood’s and Newman’s foundations, the Charles R. Wood Foundation and Newman’s Own Foundation, respectively, the lion’s share comes courtesy of local support, per Yurenda. And that support isn’t just monetary; some 1800 people, 98 percent of whom are from the Capital Region, volunteer at the ranch every year. 

More than a decade after the world lost Wood and Newman—in 2004 and 2008, respectively—their memories live on at Double H. Every camper gets to “meet” the two friends on their first night there, when costumed staffers reenact Double H’s history around a blazing campfire. The co-founders are also memorialized as cowboys in
a mural by Disney artist and designer Arto Monaco near the camp’s heated indoor pool. Wood and Newman are never far from Yurenda’s mind either: He thinks about them each day as he drives into work. “I always do a ‘thank you’ to Charley and Paul, and ask them to keep an eye on us,” he says. As for me, I now have a much deeper appreciation for Paul Newman. Now I know just how big a heart he had behind those blazin’ blue eyes.   

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Karen Bjornland

An award-winning writer, Contributing Editor Karen Bjornland has been contributing to saratoga living for 12 years. Her work has also appeared in Adirondack Life, the Albany Times Union and Schenectady's Daily Gazette, among many other publications. She lives outside of Saratoga Springs in Greenfield Center.

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