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Businessman, philanthropist Jon M. Huntsman Sr. dies at age 80

SALT LAKE CITY — Jon M. Huntsman Sr., billionaire, businessman, political organizer, philanthropist and former Area Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died Friday afternoon, Feb 2, 2018. He was 80.

Born in Blackfoot, Idaho, Huntsman grew up poor but worked hard, mowing lawns and picking potatoes for 6 cents a pack. He is being remembered by friends, colleagues and admirers as a man of great business acumen and singular generosity.

Those were both important to the man and in tributes immediately following his death Friday, admirers, friends and loved ones called out both his generosity and his dedication to battling cancer. Said son Peter Huntsman, who leads the Huntsman Cancer Foundation: "The most effective way to honor our founder and chairman is to carry on his passion and vision until we accomplish our objective, the eradication of cancer."

"He was my hero, my mentor and a beautiful human who uplifted so many. I will miss him," Susan Sheehan, president and COO of the foundation, added.

In a written statement, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lauded him as a man of compassion and action.

"We share today in the grief of the Huntsman family. We honor Jon as a cherished husband, father and friend, esteemed as a leader for his exceptional capacity, commitment, philanthropy and service throughout the world. We express our love to Karen, to their children and family. Jon's legacy of faithful leadership, generosity and goodness stands as a beacon for the entire Huntsman family and many others throughout the world.”

Huntsman died early Friday afternoon, surrounded by his family. He had been in declining health in recent weeks. Tributes poured in throughout the afternoon — from religious leaders, politicians, leaders of organizations he'd given aid and others.

Huntsman made his fortune buying distressed chemical assets at bargain prices and was for decades the chairman and CEO of the Huntsman group of companies, including Huntsman Chemical Corp. — once the largest privately held chemical company in the United States. He stepped down as executive chairman of Huntsman Corp. at the end of 2017. His son Peter Huntsman, company president and CEO, was elected to replace him as chairman of the board of directors.

In 2016, Forbes wrote that Huntsman and his wife, the former Karen Haight, were America's second-most generous philanthropists, having given away $1.55 billion in their lifetimes, which the magazine calculated as 160 percent of their net worth at the time. Their generosity to the organizations and charities that caught their eyes or tugged at their hearts put them among roughly two dozen people who have given away at least $1 billion. Huntsman had also signed the Giving Pledge, which includes a vow to give away half of one's personal wealth.

"My suggestion was to give 80 percent away. Why do they need half of $10 billion to live on?" he told The New York Times in 2013. "The people I particularly dislike are those who say, 'I'm going to leave it in my will.' What they're really saying is, 'If I could live forever, I wouldn't give any of it away.'"

Much of Huntsman's vast philanthropic effort focused on issues related to cancer and the search to conquer the disease in its many forms. He was a four-time cancer survivor and his mother, Kathleen Robison Huntsman, died of breast cancer. To that end, Huntsman was chairman of the Huntsman Cancer Institute, which he and his wife, Karen, established in 1995 with a $450 million donation.

Huntsman was known as a scrapper who didn't pull punches when he believed a cause was just. The Huntsman Cancer Foundation was created to raise money for the cancer institute, though the Huntsman family doesn't own or operate the center itself. Last spring, Huntsman was a key player in a volatile and highly publicized fight over leadership of the cancer institute. He blasted then-University of Utah President David Pershing and Dr. Vivian Lee, CEO of University of Utah Health, after they abruptly fired institute director and CEO Mary Beckerle.

As the controversy flared, the outspoken billionaire threatened to withhold a $250 million donation. The university reinstated Beckerle and Lee resigned a few days later. Pershing recently stepped down as university president.

"He was an amazing, amazing man and someone I will always hold in my heart," Beckerle told the Deseret News Friday. "He was a real visionary and he had a way of imagining a future very few others could see and then making it happen, like the vision of building this institute on this empty hillside."

Pershing was also among those who paid tribute as news of Huntsman's death became known. "Utah, and indeed the nation, has lost one of its truly great citizens with the passing of Jon M. Huntsman Sr.," he said in a written statement, noting their friendship spanned two decades.

Pershing lauded Huntsman as a "passionate supporter of the University of Utah," whose "vision and generosity will benefit cancer patients, students, faculty, researchers and people throughout Utah and the nation for generations to come."

He wrote, "Jon never forgot his humble beginnings nor the help he received along the way to becoming a giant in business and philanthropy. He said 'good fortunes and blessings must be returned by helping others.' And that is what he did." He also noted that "Jon’s fight to defeat cancer goes on, but by any measure it can be said Jon achieved his vision. The Huntsman Cancer Institute is a world-class facility, and the University of Utah is fortunate to be a partner with Karen and the entire Huntsman family in this continuing and noble endeavor. We remain committed to Jon’s goal of eradicating cancer and the success of the remarkable institute that bears his name. It is his legacy and one that will benefit generations to come."

Cancer wasn't Huntsman's only crusade. In the introduction to his memoir, "Barefoot to Billionaire: Reflections on a Life's Work and a Promise to Cure Cancer," he chronicled the twin goals that drove him. He had wanted to rise above the poverty that dogged his childhood and amass wealth so he could change the circumstances of those in need around him.

"From simple and stark beginnings, I spent the last half-century building a global industrial empire with my family's name on the door. In the process, I made a fortune and for the last 30 years my focus has been to use that wealth to solidify charities, defeat cancer, educate kids, feed the hungry and ensure women and children are not abused," he wrote.

He received many prestigious honors, including the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy in 2015. The year before, he was awarded the William E. Simon Prize for Leadership — an award that touts personal responsibility, resourcefulness, voluntarism, scholarship, individual freedom, faith in God and helping people help themselves. In introducing him, longtime friend Pamela Atkinson — herself a well-known advocate for people who are poor or disenfranchised — said he'd saved Armenia after the 1988 earthquake, providing the people there with "aid, jobs and hope." He always managed to turn his compassion and understanding into action, she noted.

"Part of the essence of Jon Huntsman is that he has done so much for so many that we never hear about," she said, calling him caring, committed and compassionate. She also praised his "human touch," from visiting patients at the cancer hospital that bears his name to his close relationship with his children and grandchildren and the many friends to whom she said he often sent handwritten notes of affection and encouragement.

Atkinson recalled a time she was "serving dinner to our homeless friends. I ended up in tears when I found out so many of them had nowhere to go that very cold night. We were having difficulty in finding a building; this was some years ago. A reporter overheard me telling a friend the story and it was in the newspaper the next day. Jon called me and said he would not allow his friend Pamela to be in tears because of lack of money and a building for my homeless friends! One hour later, his assistant was in my office with a check for $225,000 for a winter overflow shelter! He is an amazing man who epitomizes so many great values!"

"He's driven to make money and put it back into the community and around the world," Karen Huntsman said at a press conference launching her husband's autobiography in 2014. "I'm grateful that I've been able to stand by his side."

Among recent gifts were a joint $50 million donation from the Huntsman Foundation and the Charles Koch Foundation to Utah State University to establish the Center for Growth and Opportunity and more than $10 million from Huntsman family members and entities for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts in southeast Texas. That capped decades of donations to help diverse communities recover from natural disasters, including long-term efforts to rebuild Armenia after the earthquake ravaged it. Huntsman also recently donated $1 million to the University of Nevada Las Vegas' department of history to study the Intermountain West. In December, he gave $1.2 million to the Road Home for its holiday fundraiser. The shelter had been one of his most enduring causes.

Since he first donated $1 million to the organization's shelter operation in 1992, the Jon M. Huntsman Community Shelter Trust had provided more than $5 million for operations and upkeep, and had a current balance of more than $9 million. Shortly after the shelter first opened, a grateful Road Home board presented him a framed copy of a colorful mural depicting "city homes" painted by children staying there, because his philanthropy was so vital to establishing the shelter and a school there.

In a written statement Friday, Road Home executive director Matt Minkevitch said that "our world feels a little smaller today" and noted that Huntsman's "contributions extended beyond his immeasurable philanthropy. He demonstrated an on-the-ground radical kindness for everyone we served."

Such generosity and caring were not later-in-life traits, but rather inherent aspects of his nature. Friends and family members recall that as student body president at Palo Alto High School in California, Huntsman bought ties to honor the school custodians and befriended a frail classmate who struggled with ill health. In 1966, when the 29-year-old Huntsman earned just $10,000 a year, one of his uncles found a surprise Christmas present in his driveway in Fillmore: A new $6,000 Chevrolet pickup truck. As a newlywed, Huntsman once pried $50 from a tight budget to leave in the mailbox of a struggling widow in his LDS ward.

"He did not become a philanthropist when he grew rich," former LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley once said. "He gave freely when he was poor."

Religion played a significant role in the industrialist's public and private life. Huntsman served as an Area Seventy in the LDS Church from 1996 to 2011. He was also a regional representative, stake president and president of the Washington D.C. Mission. Occasionally, he offered his corporate jet to speed LDS Church leaders to gatherings.

He didn't forget early hard days or their lessons. In 2009, during a speech at Brigham Young University titled "God Did Not Put Us Here to Fail," Huntsman recalled being rejected for a loan as he was trying to start his company.

"I said to myself, 'No is only the beginning of the conversation.' Filled with confidence, I returned many times to the banker and finally wore him down. He granted me a meager loan and I began a small business," he said. Later, when others foresaw roadblocks to building his business, "I forged ahead because I genuinely believed in myself and was adamant that no one else was going to determine my own personal destiny."

Highlights from the voluminous list of awards he's received over the years include the 2015 Bower Award for Business Leadership from the Franklin Institute and the Salt Lake Chamber's "Giant in Our City" award in 2005 for "exceptional and distinguished public service and extraordinary professional achievement." In 1994, the chemical industry proclaimed him top CEO for businesses in North America and Europe.

Huntsman's legacy includes buildings that bear his name. The eight-story Huntsman Hall building, part of the Wharton School of Business on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, was named to honor philanthropic gifts made throughout his life. He graduated from the Wharton School of Finance there in 1959 and later earned an MBA from the University of Southern California.

The University of Utah is home to the Jon M. Huntsman Center, a nod to his first large-scale donation, and his name graces facilities at Brigham Young University, Utah State University and other institutions. Over his lifetime, Huntsman funded teaching awards, the YWCA, Catholic charities geared toward the homeless and hungry, and humanitarian relief worldwide.

Jon and Karen Huntsman are parents of nine children. Their son Jon Huntsman Jr. is the U.S. ambassador to Russia and was previously governor of Utah and ambassador to China. He ran for president of the United States as a Republican in 2012.

Huntsman's children were at the center of two of the hardest experiences of his life, and he wrote candidly about them: His son James was kidnapped at age 16 by a former classmate who demanded $1 million ransom in 1987. FBI agents rescued the boy unharmed. And his daughter, Kathleen, died of complications from an illness that long challenged her. "The grief over her loss continues to paralyze me when I dwell on it," he wrote of her death. "Whether this story publicly can, with the Lord's help, produce closure, I cannot say. What is certain is that I can write no further about this." Until including it in his memoir, Huntsman had never publicly discussed his son's abduction.

Huntsman was active politically and made a brief run for Utah governor in 1988. He was Utah's GOP national committeeman from 1976-80 and in 1977 he also served as chairman of the Western State Republican Leaders. In the 1984, 1988 and 1992 presidential elections, he served as a Utah chairman for the Reagan and Bush campaigns.

He also worked in the federal government — in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1970 and as special assistant and staff secretary to President Richard Nixon from 1971-72.

Huntsman, who left the White House just four months before Watergate broke, described his time there as eye-opening and exhilarating. His memoir described Nixon on one hand as a good husband and father who believed in basic family values and on the other as a man who was secretive, spiteful and angry. "Worse, as president, he betrayed the American people and the democracy he was elected to defend."

Huntsman launched his business career at Olson Brothers, a Los Angeles egg producer, but set out on his own to found the Huntsman Container Corp. in the 1970s. In a joint venture with Dow Chemical, the company made its mark inventing styrofoam egg containers and the clamshell used for McDonald's Big Macs. That company evolved into his chemical enterprise.

His memoir contains this look back: "I made it to where I am today because of a solid faith in God and myself and with the unwavering support of my wife, Karen, and nine children. I made it because I come from good stock, a healthy ancestral mix of preachers and saloonkeepers who provided potent DNA for embracing the values and accepting others who may not think the same as you do. This nation provides incredible opportunities, especially for those who are focused, tenacious and willing to take risks."

A few years ago, Huntsman considered buying the Salt Lake Tribune. His son, Paul Huntsman, did buy it in May 2016.

Besides memoirs, Huntsman wrote "Winners Never Cheat: Everyday Values We Learned as Children (But May Have Forgotten)." In a 2009 revision, he wrote, "I have maintained the philosophies that my word is my bond, that getting even is a waste of precious resources and focus, that liars will eventually find their pants on fire, that it is right and just to treat others how you like to be treated, that fudging on the rules ultimately makes you a loser and that you always help those who are in need."

He also served on numerous boards, including that of the Utah Symphony, Thiokol Corp., Campbell Soup, the Bankers Trust of New York, the American Red Cross, Wharton School and Primary Children's Hospital, among others.

Family members said final funeral arrangements are still pending, but they are planning on holding funeral services Saturday, Feb. 10, at the Huntsman Center at the University of Utah with a public viewing on Friday, Feb. 9.