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About Utah: A life story about receiving — and giving

SALT LAKE CITY — Anyone who doesn’t think real life is a lot more fascinating than anything you could make up should do what I did last week: Pick up a copy of Jon Huntsman’s biography, “Barefoot to Billionaire.”

The book has been out since November, but I didn’t check out a copy from the library until last week.

I realized that although I’ve long been surrounded by Jon Huntsman — that’s his name on the basketball arena at the University of Utah, that’s his name on the cancer institute, that’s his name, with a “Jr.” attached, on the popular former Utah governor who ran for president in 2012 — I knew almost nothing of the details of his life.

I’m glad he took the time to write them down.

He takes us on a remarkable life journey that at its core, interestingly enough, has little to do with getting rich. If that had been his abiding goal, he’d have stopped after producing the first plastic egg carton when he was just getting started. That alone would have ensured no house mortgages or BMW payments the rest of his natural life.

It’s his uncommon drive — a need to achieve that is downright Jordan-esque — that stares out from every page.

Becoming a billionaire? That’s the effect, not the cause.

That drive is evident in everything he’s done, and he’s done a lot. He was in the Nixon White House (pre-Watergate, thankfully), he was an LDS mission president, he did a hitch in the U.S. Navy, he graduated top of his class at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School (and still managed to score two points for the Penn varsity basketball team), he married his high school sweetheart, Karen, the daughter of a man who would become an LDS apostle, and they raised nine children. All this and more is wedged in, around and in between buying, selling and acquiring businesses as if the world is one huge Monopoly board.

Huntsman clearly has a gift for knowing when to hold and when to fold. One of my favorite anecdotes in the book is his account of he and Karen taking their large family to California vacations in the station wagon — this is in the pre-millionaire days — and while the kids are sleeping in a Las Vegas motel he hustles over to the casino to make enough money to finance the trip.

Huntsman wears the white hat in all his deals — it is his book, after all — and that might become tiresome, if not insufferable, if not measured with his desire to give his fortune away, a force as powerful as the one to acquire it in the first place.

Forbes, which calculates such things, has documented that Utah’s Jon Huntsman is one of just 19 of history’s 1,000-plus billionaires who have given away more than a billion dollars. That figure stands at about $1.5 billion currently, an outgo that includes the closing-in-on $1 billion Huntsman has pumped into the Huntsman Cancer Institute, the $53 million to build the largest building on the Wharton School campus, another $50-plus million to help rebuild the country of Armenia (devastated by an earthquake in 1988), $27 million to Utah State University to endow the Huntsman School of Business, and then there are those million-dollar checks he gave to the Road Home and St. Vincent de Paul’s soup kitchen when he was on his way to have cancer prostate surgery at University of Utah Hospital in 1992.

In addition to giving 10 percent of his increase to the Mormons throughout his life, he’s also given so much to the Catholics that the pope once invited him to the Vatican to personally thank him.

But maybe the best indicator of Huntsman’s inherent nature to give it away is when he sent a new $6,000 Chevrolet pickup truck to the driveway of his Uncle Lon Robison in Fillmore as a surprise Christmas present in 1966. The 29-year-old Huntsman was drawing a $10,000-a-year salary at the time.

His autobiography often pulls no punches (his abusive father doesn’t get high marks, and Mitt Romney probably won’t be sending out copies as Christmas presents). Huntsman talks candidly about his own health issues, including four bouts with cancer, and about the time his son James was kidnapped, and rescued, as a teenager. For the first time he talks publicly about the pain of losing his daughter Kathleen, who died after a long period battling mental issues.

He also makes no bones about the fact that he believes his son Jon Jr. would make the country’s best president.

The theme that runs throughout the narrative, at least to me, is one of survival. For a billionaire, Jon Huntsman sure has done a lot of it. From starting out life as a “blue baby” that the attending Idaho country doctor presumed was born dead, to the medical issues, to staving off bankruptcy four different times in the super complicated petrochemical industry that has given him his fortune. (I read the entire book and still don’t know what his company does.)

In the end, you’re not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse to have so much money.

I do know that when I checked the book back into the library I felt like I should go out and buy a copy. All proceeds from sales go to the fight to cure cancer, the disease that took Jon Huntsman’s father, mother and brother and almost took him. At 77, beating the silent assassin has become his encompassing focus. In his life story, closing that deal is the final chapter waiting to be written.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: benson@deseretnews.com