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A true-to-life Haratio Alger saga

A 19th-century novelist, Horatio Alger, wrote stories about boys who grew up in poverty and, through hard work and good deeds, became men successful beyond their wildest dreams. His "rags-to-riches" stories have inspired generations of boys and men.

Jon M. Huntsman, an Area Authority Seventy whose name is often listed among America's most successful businessmen, could qualify as a main character in an Alger saga. In fact, earlier this year, the Horatio Alger Association presented him its Distinguished American Award. His success would certainly bring a sparkle to the novelist's eyes: he grew up in a two-room house with no plumbing and is now chairman and chief executive officer of Huntsman Corp. and of Huntsman Chemical Corp. From executive offices in Salt Lake City, he oversees operations at 81 sites in 23 countries.The Oct. 13 issue of Forbes magazine listed Elder Huntsman among America's "biggest givers." Featuring him along with nine other philanthropists, the magazine noted that he gives between $30 million and $50 million a year, "not including 10 percent tithe to the Mormon Church."

Forbes quoted Elder Huntsman: "At age 11, I started to pay 10 percent of my [income] to the church. I was making 50 cents a day mowing lawns. . . ."

Elder Huntsman was born in Blackfoot, Idaho, in 1937, and grew up in Fillmore, Utah, and Palo Alto, Calif. He worked full-time during the summers while many friends played baseball or went fishing. He qualified for a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, the oldest business school in the United States, and received an MBA from the University of Southern California.

His wife of 38 years, Karen (daughter of Elder and Sister David B. Haight), once described their courtship years in Palo Alto by saying that he was "one of the poorest boys I knew." Today, he is among the wealthiest men in America. Recently, during an interview with Church News, Elder Huntsman spoke about a principle that obviously is close to his heart. "It is such an honor to pay tithing," he said.

Asked to reflect upon his life, Elder Huntsman, 60, responded: "Through it all, I thank God every day for the anchor of the Church. Next to the atonement of Jesus Christ, I believe the two most important spiritual ingredients are the restoration of the gospel in its fulness and the law of consecration. This very sacred covenant represents a special blessing that permits us to give what we have to the building of the kingdom, to pay our tithes and offerings and to provide all that we have, if necessary, for the building of the Church. I think an extension of that is to help God's children wherever they may be who need help. The principle of consecration has been a great blessing in our life."

Elder Huntsman said that he and his wife never thought they would become wealthy. "Our goal in life was never to have the affluence of the vast corporate empire that we've been given today," he said. "That happened as a result of many other people I have been associated with doing their job well, and with me being fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. I think I could sum it up best by saying that if I had to write a book about my life, I would simply title it, `Lucky, Lucky Me!' Because I understand that so well, if everything were stripped away from us that had to do with affluence or material possessions, Karen and I would be just as happy today as the day we were married. If we had to return to Idaho where I started, that would be a great blessing. I don't think we would miss one iota the trappings of our life. I must say that when the Lord has blessed one with affluence and with material goods, there is not only an obligation but there is a duty, a very critical duty, that one has to impart a substantial part of that material gain to others, particularly those who are suffering."

Helping others, whether through contributions to the Church or other venues, seems to be a major life purpose for Elder and Sister Huntsman and their nine children, many of whom are directly involved in the operations of Huntsman Corp. and Huntsman Chemical. The Huntsman family recently donated $100 million and raised an additional $51 million to establish and fund the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah, one of America's major centers dedicated to finding a cure for cancer through genetic research.

With the same drive that motivated him to build a huge business empire, Elder Huntsman is determined to play a part in finding a cure for cancer. Part of his battle against the disease is personal - both his parents died of cancer and he has been treated for two kinds of cancer.

In other realms, the Huntsmans have dedicated significant funds to rebuild Armenia after the devastating earthquake of 1988. Major gifts to more than 150 institutions and charities worldwide for helping the homeless, the ill and the underprivileged set Elder Huntsman apart as one of America's foremost concerned citizens. He has been honored by the then-National Conference of Christians and Jews, the Caring Institute, and the Catholic Church for his contributions to the causes of assisting those who suffer.

Elder Huntsman glossed over the listing of his charitable contributions as "part of paying my dues."

" `No man is an island,' " he said, quoting John Donne. (1573-1631.) "I've always been very fond of that expression. No man stands alone. Throughout our life we have a substantial number of individuals who are our mentors, our coaches, our heroes. Outside of my own parents, most of my mentors and heroes have been Church leaders. Perhaps that is one of the reasons my testimony has remained strong and true. As a boy at age 12, I remembered every single word that President David O. McKay stated at our stake conference in Palo Alto, Calif., when he said that the most important virtue of any human being is that of kindness.

"I remember how he looked, what he wore, how he combed his hair. I was sitting on the front row. I was the only one in my family there; my family was not active in the Church. I had hitchhiked to conference to see the prophet of the Lord. His message on kindness was followed by teachings from the Savior's admonition in the Sermon on the Mount to watch over others. Charity is the greatest gift of life that one can give to another."

Other Church leaders, including President Howard W. Hunter, who was a neighbor and personal friend, President Gordon B. Hinckley, and his father-in-law, Elder Haight of the Quorum of the Twelve, are listed among his role models and heroes.

The Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans was established 50 years ago to "show the nation that the American free enterprise system still presents vast opportunities for individuals to build rewarding, productive lives," said spokeswoman Terese Kelly in a news release. The Distinguished American Award, she said, "recognizes individuals who have beaten long odds to achieve remarkable success."

In 1995, when Elder Huntsman was scheduled to deliver the commencement address at Wharton, the school's newspaper stated: "Jon Huntsman, the global chemical empire builder, is certainly not the most famous Wharton alumnus, . . . nor is he the wealthiest. . . . He may, however, be one of the most admired."

While Elder Huntsman graciously endures accolades sent his way, he puts greater stock in other quarters. "My mother taught when I was a little boy that adversity can be a great blessing, if we can grow from it and if we can utilize it as a stepping stone in our life and not as a hindrance," he said. "I've loved associating with people who have stumbled and come back, who have refused to let their mistakes or their errors of life bog them down but have kept their eye on the Savior, and on His teachings and have tried to overcome any past errors or mistakes in their lives. I guess that's one of the reasons that the gospel is such an anchor in our family's life and in my personal life.

"No matter what else might happen in a worldly or monetary context, or may be the result of the honors of men, the overriding factor in one's life is to honor the priesthood and to follow the Brethren."