Late billionaire, philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr. never forgot his East Idaho roots

Jon Huntsman, Sr.  Rick Bowmer/AP Photo

Jon Huntsman, Sr.
Rick Bowmer/AP Photo

By Journal Staff and Wire Reports

Utah billionaire Jon Huntsman Sr. died on Friday — for the second time in his 80-year life.

The successful industrialist and author — who is also recognized as one of America’s foremost concerned citizens and philanthropists, giving more than $1.5 billion to assist the homeless, the ill and the underprivileged, according to his biographical information — almost never got the chance to become or do any of that.

That’s because Huntsman was born dead.

And if it hadn’t been for a 70-year-old widow and midwife, Emily Walters Olsen, he might never have lived.

In his autobiography “Barefoot to Billionaire: Reflections on a Life’s Work and a Promise to Cure Cancer,” Huntsman discusses his premature birth that occurred in the two-room basement apartment on Fisher Street in Blackfoot where his family was living.

He writes that he was purple and had no signs of life when he was born. The family doctor, A.E. Miller, who arrived shortly after his birth, tried unsuccessfully to get him to breathe and soon concluded that he was dead.

That’s when Olsen stepped in.

“She ordered my father to carry me into the kitchen where we had an old-fashioned, wood-burning stove and a sink which doubled as the washbasin ever since hot water had been introduced into our home a few months earlier,” according to Huntsman’s book. “She was going to try a lifesaving remedy she had used on the (Fort Hall) reservation, she told my father, and commanded him to turn on the hot- and cold-water taps at the same time.”

At Olsen’s direction, Huntsman writes that his father repeatedly held him under the cold water and then the hot, while rubbing and gently squeezing his chest. After several tense minutes, his mouth opened and then closed. A short time later, he started to breathe on his own.

“Olsen rubbed me dry, wrapped me in a soft blanket, and laid me on the open door of the stove’s warming oven,” Huntsman wrote in his book, adding that he started to cry soon after he received his first meal: diluted condensed milk administered through a medicine dropper.

Huntsman writes that his family’s doctor never forgot that birth, which he referred to as the “life after death” delivery.

While Huntsman’s entry into the world was a dramatic one, his exit was much quieter.

His longtime assistant Pam Bailey said he died in Salt Lake City but she declined to name a cause of death. The Huntsman Corp., which he founded, said in a statement that Huntsman died at his home, surrounded by family.

His funeral has been set for Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Jon M. Huntsman Center on the University of Utah campus.

Although Huntsman overcame poverty and became one of Utah’s most successful and powerful people during his life, he never forgot his Idaho roots.

His family lived in the state off and on while he was growing up.

His first paying job was selling and delivering the Pocatello newspaper, he wrote. He developed his passion for fishing while he was living in the area, and he learned more about leadership and social philosophy while he was a freshman at Pocatello High School, where he served as the class president from 1951-1952.

“It carried the opportunity — and the responsibility — to make a difference,” he wrote in his autobiography.

To celebrate his 60th birthday, Huntsman’s family rented a bus so they could tour East Idaho and see the places where he grew up, according to his book.

Huntsman, whose family was behind the development of the Huntsman Springs resort in Teton Valley, was inducted into Idaho’s Hall of Fame in 2010.

Dallas Cox, who was the president of Idaho’s Hall of Fame at that time, said in a news release: “The intent behind Idaho’s Hall of Fame is to highlight the good that some of our most prominent Idahoans have done and continue to do in the world. Jon Huntsman’s story is one which will inspire our young people and help them understand their own potential to accomplish great things which might benefit society in Idaho and beyond its borders.”

In 1970, Huntsman founded the Huntsman Container Corp., which focused on food packaging and pioneered the clamshell container used for McDonald’s Corp.’s Big Mac hamburger. He formed Huntsman Chemical Corp. in 1982, and more than a decade later, consolidated his companies as Huntsman Corp., producing materials used in a wide range of products, from textiles and paints to plastics and aviation components.

After amassing his fortune, Huntsman gave more than $100 million in the mid-1990s to establish a research center at the University of Utah dedicated to finding a cure for cancer through human genetics. Huntsman, who lost both his parents to cancer and fought his own battle with the disease, eventually gave more than $400 million to the Huntsman Cancer Institute and its foundation.

“Cancer is hideous and deplorable and must be conquered, and it will be, as any evil eventually is defeated,” Huntsman wrote in his 2014 autobiography. He said he would see to it that the institute continues its mission “if it takes my last dollar — and I expect that will be the case.”

The billionaire and his family also gave generously to Utah’s homeless shelters as well as more than $50 million to the Armenian people after a 1988 earthquake in that country left thousands homeless.

He also played key roles in state and national politics.

Huntsman was a special assistant to President Richard Nixon and briefly ran his own 1988 campaign for Utah’s governor.

He later served as a finance chairman for Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential bid and in 2012, worked for his son’s short-lived race for the Republican presidential nomination, giving more than $1.8 million to a super PAC supporting the younger Huntsman.

Jon Huntsman Jr. is now the U.S. ambassador to Russia and is a former Utah governor and ambassador to China and Singapore.

A committed member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jon Huntsman Sr. served in several high-level leadership positions with the faith and had close friendships with the past five church presidents.

The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said in a statement that his “legacy of faithful leadership, generosity and goodness” would be a beacon for many around the world.

Huntsman is survived by his wife, Karen, and eight of his nine children, many of whom became involved in the family business. The couple also has 56 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren, according to his biographical information.