Utah billionaire and prominent philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr. died Friday at the age of 80, confirmed by a statement released by the Huntsman Cancer Institute. At the apex of Huntsman’s often-bumpy journey, he found himself one of America’s wealthiest people and among the nation’s top 25 all-time philanthropists.
Huntsman founded the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah with a $100 million gift in the 1990’s. Through 2017, he and his wife Karen remained the single largest donors to the institute.
Born in Blackfoot, Idaho into relative poverty, Huntsman was no stranger to difficult environments or working hard to overcome them. His family was so poor that he once said, “we didn’t have anything.” Huntsman attributed his hard work, in part, to his childhood experiences in his autobiography saying, “Throughout my life, I have hustled to outrun the shadow of poverty.” As a teen he helped support his family while his father was in graduate school at Stanford. Huntsman attended The Wharton School on scholarship, paid for by newspaper mogul Harold Zellerbach after Huntsman had impressed him in an interview. Huntsman graduated from Wharton in 1959 and has remained the largest benefactor in the school’s history.
After graduating and marrying, Huntsman worked as a naval officer. It was at this time that he began donating to charity. He said he made $320 a month, and gave $50 of it away.
After working at an egg business, he began pursuing better ways to package them. He partnered with Dow Chemical to work on the idea, but the project fizzled out. Huntsman’s first steps in business were selling $1 music albums on the side. The profits were used to spin off his own business — Huntsman Container Corporation.
Despite having just started a business with his brother, in 1969 Huntsman left Karen and seven children to begin working in the White House as a Special Assistant and Staff Secretary to President Richard Nixon. He worked under H.R. Haldeman, who later served 18 years in prison for his involvement in the Watergate scandal.
He left before the scandal — the business was suffering and he hadn’t seen his family in a year — but he later told a White House interviewer that he eventually came to feel terrorized at the job, despite the deep sense of duty he felt there. When discussing whether he learned anything useful during his time there, Huntsman said, “You’ve got to set the right tone and temperament in a corporation. It comes from the top. And if you don’t establish the appropriate ethical climate all the way, filtering down through the system, there will be a lapse of good judgement and proper conduct.” He also said, “I kind of learned from Haldeman how not to treat people” and explained, “I didn’t take anything but fear out. It took me years to get over the fear of Haldeman, the fear of my work not being perfect, and the need to please the President with every little letter in place.”
Upon returning to his business and his family, Huntsman felt more at home. The business struggled through near collapse the next year, but it wasn’t long before Huntsman found his first big cash flow when the company created styrofoam clamshells he sold to Burger King and, later, McDonald’s.
In 1974, he sold that business and started his second — Huntsman Corporation. Through every major struggle the business faced Huntsman bartered, traded and borrowed his way to stability. Then, between 1985 and 2000, 35 of the 36 companies he bought were profitable investments. He made a fortune. By 2013, the company was making an annual revenue of $12 billion.
Even after making his fortune, life wasn’t always smooth sailing for Huntsman. In 1987 his 17 year old son, James Huntsman, was kidnapped from his driveway by a classmate and chained to a pipe overnight in a motel room. The culprit demanded a $1.1 million ransom. The next day, FBI agents found Huntsman and arrested his kidnapper, who stabbed an agent in the chest during the process. Huntsman later described the events as a time when he saw the dark side of what it meant to be wealthy.
Through all that, Huntsman continued to give to charity. By the time he and his wife had made their first million dollars, he estimated that they had given a quarter of it away. At some points in his career when business wasn’t going well, the philanthropist had promised so much money to charity he took out loans to keep his word.
“The presidents of these banks just have a fit,” he said in an interview with the New York Times. “They wonder why you’re borrowing money to give it away. I say it’s because I have made a commitment to give it away and the last people who can afford to have their money withdrawn are people who are already suffering. I’m not going to put these people in double jeopardy. I will honor every commitment I’ve ever made. One way or another, we’ve found out to pay back all the banks and keep our business going. If I had to sell my home, I would do it and sell anything I have to honour a commitment to charity.”
In 2014, Forbes named him “one of 19 people living who have donated more than $1 billion to charity” — an estimated 80 percent of his net worth. That level of donation caused him to be dropped from Forbes’s list of the 400 most wealthy Americans, but Huntsman took pride in that. He said he wanted to “die broke” after giving away all his money. In recent years, estimates put his total charitable contributions at $2 billion. At a meeting where Bill Gates and Warren Buffet asked wealthy individuals to donate at least 50 percent of their money, he told Buffet the goal ought to have been 80 percent.
“The people I particularly dislike are those who say, ‘I’m going to leave it in my will,’” Huntsman said. “What they’re really saying is, ‘If I could live forever, I wouldn’t give any of it away.’”
The bulk of Huntsman’s donations were to cancer research — both parents, his step-mother, grandmother and a brother all died from the disease. His mother died in his arms. Huntsman himself had cancer four times — prostate, mouth, melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma. His goal was to cure cancer.
In 2015, he said, “We’re not going to stop until every type of cancer is eradicated from the face of the earth. That’s our mission.” It became a driving force in his life, and the place where he put his fighting spirit to forceful use. He stopped identifying as a Republican and started donating to any politician who would support federal funding for cancer research. Huntsman called Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee an “extremist” and an “embarrassment” after Lee was involved in a government shutdown that cost Huntsman Cancer Institute “millions in federal dollars.”
When U president David Pershing and former CEO of University of Utah Health removed Mary Beckerle from her position at the head of the cancer institute in 2017, Huntsman condemned the actions and threatened to withhold more than $100 million dollars in donations unless she was reinstated.
Other causes he funded were the provision of over 5,000 college scholarships, combatting homelessness and supporting abused women and children.
It’s unclear what lead to Huntsman’s death, but he had talked about being in poor health in recent months.
“This past year, Jon Huntsman took steps to assure that there would be continued growth and focus for well into the future,” read a statement from the Huntsman Cancer Foundation. “And even earlier, Mr. Huntsman was preparing for the future. On July 1, 2015, Peter Huntsman, his son, was named the CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation. Additionally, on that same date, Susan Sheehan was named President and COO.”
Huntsman also stepped down from his role at Huntsman Corporation in 2017.
In that statement, Peter Huntsman wrote, “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.”
In a statement released after Huntsman’s death, Beckerle said, “Jon M. Huntsman Sr. was a great man who led a profoundly inspiring life. Other than his family, his goal to eradicate cancer from the face of the earth was the greatest passion of his life. He has left this world knowing that all of us are equally committed to this goal […] I can still hear Mr. Huntsman’s words: ‘Cancer moves fast … and we have to move faster.’ Together, we can best honor Mr. Huntsman and contribute to his legacy by committing to work ever faster to advance the mission of the great Institute that bears his name, to provide hope and healing to all who are impacted by this disease.”
Pershing also released a statement, saying, “Utah, and indeed the nation, has lost one of its truly great citizens with the passing of Jon M. Huntsman Sr. Jon was a passionate supporter of the University of Utah, and his vision and generosity will benefit cancer patients, students, faculty, researchers and people throughout Utah and the nation for generations to come. I am grateful for my friendship with Jon, which spanned more than two decades. He was a devoted husband, father and grandfather; a faithful member of his church; and a compassionate member of our community. 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.” The statement continued, “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.”