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Devastating fire at Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut can’t touch its soul

“The dining hall and the infirmary still stand. Had it not been for quick action of the fire team, we would have seen much more painful devastation and it would have been much more challenging to rebuild," said Alan Pender, the camp’s director of Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.
“The dining hall and the infirmary still stand. Had it not been for quick action of the fire team, we would have seen much more painful devastation and it would have been much more challenging to rebuild," said Alan Pender, the camp’s director of Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

ASHFORD, Conn. — It’s a magical place of fun and music — of comfort and laughter — and that is why the blackened remains of this special world shaped by a blue-eyed movie star to help sick kids wound so deeply.

The Feb. 12 fire that tore through the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, founded in 1988 by actor Paul Newman, destroyed the camp’s wood shop, its camp store, its cooking zone, and its arts & crafts center.

But it could never reach the camp’s heart.

It never came close to its 360-acre soul.

Those remain out of danger’s reach. They reside deep inside the campers and the camp counselors who have tucked away the special memories — those against-all-odds, unforgettable moments — that were born here in the woods of northeastern Connecticut.

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Small moments.

A kind word over lunch. Whispered late-night stories and bunkhouse secrets. A musical performance by a shy kid who, with sudden confidence, sings her heart out to thunderous applause.

All of that’s still here.

And, as the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp charts its first steps toward resurrection, there’s a steely determination that — just as its young campers have — the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp will survive. And thrive.

A plaque adorns a rock near the buildings, at Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, in Ashford, Conn., that were recently destroyed by fire.
A plaque adorns a rock near the buildings, at Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, in Ashford, Conn., that were recently destroyed by fire.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“To be honest, camp is the most special place I’ve ever been to,” said Zaire Ramiz, a 14-year-old with a genetic blood disorder, and an eighth-grader at a school in West Hartford. “Wow! This is a summer camp, but I never expected it to feel this way or to make so many friends, or to have so much in common with so many people.

“It feels like family.”

Family. That’s a word you hear frequently when you speak to those who form the backbone of this rustic place, where Newman hoped sick kids could “raise a little hell.”

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Newman, who died in 2008, sometimes roamed this place, a largely anonymous figure to the camper kids, who knew him only as the friendly guy with the wide smile, not the actor who once portrayed Butch Cassidy, the wise-guy leader of the big screen’s Hole in the Wall Gang.

“There’s a sacredness to this camp,” Jimmy Canton, the camp’s chief executive, told me the other day. “The camp is made sacred by the memories and the joys and the connections that we make at camp. And those are a permanent part of our facility.”

Some buildings at Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, in Ashford, Conn. were recently destroyed by fire.
Some buildings at Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, in Ashford, Conn. were recently destroyed by fire.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

In other words, this place is not made of wood and steel. But of flesh and blood.

Hilary Axtmayer, the camp’s chief program officer, knows how special these grounds are. She saw it during her first summer there 20 years ago, when as a 19-year-old college kid she worked at the camp’s boathouse during a special session for kids with HIV and AIDS.

“I’ll never forget that moment, the first day of one of the sessions,” she recalled. “I wasn’t thinking: ‘Oh my God! These kids have HIV. They’re sad.’ It wasn’t sympathy. It was just pure joy that these kids are able to celebrate life.

“No one was looking at them funny. Or thinking that they are contagious. Or infectious, a stigma so often associated with that population. We were all in this space together and we can all just be. It was just so loud. And so beautiful. That’s the moment that always stuck with me.”

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There are reminders of moments just like that everywhere you look at this place.

And it probably explains the outpouring of support that has followed in the fire’s wake.

More than 3,000 donations and pledges of more than $1 million have been made. In addition, Newman’s Own Foundation has pledged $1 million. And so has Travelers and its golf tournament, the Travelers Championship.

The back of a refrigerator and oven can be seen in The Cooking Zone at Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.
The back of a refrigerator and oven can be seen in The Cooking Zone at Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

All of that is welcome salve for those who will never forget when the camp’s automatic fire alarm went off just before 5 p.m. on Feb. 12. Witnesses reported seeing huge columns of flame and smoke, alerting local fire companies that rushed to the scene.

“It took 90 minutes to fight the fire,” recalled Alan Pender, the camp’s director, who lives near the camp’s back entrance and called 911 when he spotted the fire. “You’re just standing there. I helped firefighters drag their hoses to get closer.

“The guy was on his own and he said, ‘Can you help me?’ ”

Pender, 38, is a native of Ireland and moved to the United States in 2017, living temporarily at the camp since last May. The camp is modifying its program for this summer, which, because of COVID, would have been altered anyway.

And now this.

“Even people not in the community want to help,” Pender told me. “People who have never been to Hole in the Wall are reaching out, wanting to help. The phone is ringing off the hook. What can we do? Can I give you this? Can I give you that? It’s just a strong reminder of what a special community Hole in the Wall is.”

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When I first visited Newman’s camp in 2018, there was a note pinned on a camp corkboard that testified to the healing power of campfires, and cabin stories, and the special bonds that are forged in camp.

The camp will be rebuilt. It will be different. But that special glue will never change.

Architects have been selected. There’s a groundbreaking planned for September, when the camp’s rebirth will begin in earnest.

For the coming spring and summer seasons, programs will take place outside under tents.

“It was heartbreaking,’' Pender told me. “The dining hall and the infirmary still stand. Had it not been for quick action of the fire team, we would have seen much more painful devastation and it would have been much more challenging to rebuild.”

“Our kids teach us all the time about resilience,’' Canton added. “The camp needs to take lessons from the lives of our campers and their families. We need to raise our resilience immediately. So that’s what we’ll do. Memories are the sacred ground of this camp. Not the buildings. We will rebuild better than we were.”

That resolve, those words of determination, prompt nods of approval from people who love this place, people like Carly DeMartino, 16, of Granby, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2015. She spent five summers at the camp, arriving as a nervous 11-year-old.

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She’s seen campers with prosthetic limbs, kids with canes, and kids with cancer. Children robbed of their eyesight or their mobility.

She knows what Hole in the Wall Gang Camp has meant to them. And what it has meant to her.

“It was beyond great,” she said. “It’s really the people at camp who make you feel great. It’s the people. It’s the counselors and the volunteers.

“We’re going to help bring back those buildings to what they were. Every person who went to the camp had a challenge. And now the camp has its own challenge. And the camp has helped us to overcome our challenges.

“So now, we’re going to help the camp overcome this one.”

And as she spoke with such genuine grit and resolve, with faith and with hope, somewhere Paul Newman — just a big kid himself — surely was smiling.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.