Jon Huntsman Sr., a billionaire industrialist and philanthropist who overcame poverty to become a powerful figure in his home state of Utah, died Feb. 2 at his home in Salt Lake City. He was 80.
His assistant, Pam Bailey, confirmed the death but declined to provide the cause. Mr. Huntsman had a painful inflammatory condition, polymyalgia rheumatica, and previously had prostate cancer.
Mr. Huntsman was the founder of an $11 billion company, now called the Huntsman Corp., that refines raw materials that go into thousands of products. He was also the father of Jon Huntsman Jr., the current U.S. ambassador to Russia and a former Utah governor, presidential candidate and ambassador to China and Singapore.
After growing up in poverty, Mr. Huntsman and his brother founded the Huntsman Container Corp. in 1970. The company focused on food packaging and received a lucrative contract from McDonald's to manufacture the clamshell container used for the fast-food giant's hamburgers.
In 1982, Mr. Huntsman formed Huntsman Chemical Corp. and later acquired other businesses, which are now consolidated as Huntsman Corp., with headquarters outside Houston. The company produces materials used in a wide range of products, from textiles and paints to plastics and aviation components.
Mr. Huntsman stepped down as chairman of the company in December, in favor of his son Peter Huntsman. Another son, Paul Huntsman, is the owner of Utah's largest newspaper, the Salt Lake Tribune, which the family purchased in 2016.
In addition to his success in business, Mr. Huntsman was known as a generous philanthropist who gave away at least $1.8 billion of his fortune.
The death of his parents from cancer, plus his own experience as a cancer patient in the 1990s, led him to establish the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah. Mr. Huntsman contributed an estimated $580 million to the institute, which recently opened a research center on forms of cancer affecting children.
In a 2015 autobiography, "Barefoot to Billionaire," Mr. Huntsman wrote that he would see the work of the institute continued, "if it takes my last dollar — and I expect that will be the case."
After the institute's director, Mary Beckerle, was fired in April 2017 by University of Utah President David Pershing, Mr. Huntsman called for her to be reinstated. The resulting showdown ended with the resignation of Pershing and the university's senior vice president for health sciences. Beckerle returned to her old job.
Jon Meade Huntsman was born June 21, 1937, in Blackfoot, Idaho, and later moved to California. His father was a teacher who struggled to support the family.
"Throughout my life," Mr. Huntsman wrote in his autobiography, "I have hustled to outrun the shadow of poverty."
He graduated in 1959 from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and served in the Navy.
Mr. Huntsman served as an assistant to President Richard M. Nixon but left the position before the Watergate scandal, which led to Nixon's resignation in 1974.
Mr. Huntsman lost a primary campaign for Utah governor in 1988 and later served as a finance chairman for Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential bid. He contributed to Jon Huntsman Jr.'s short-lived Republican presidential run in 2012.
Survivors include his wife of 58 years, the former Karen Haight of Salt Lake City; eight children; 56 grandchildren; and 26 great-grandchildren. A daughter, Kathleen Huntsman, died in 2010.
Mr. Huntsman's first noted act of philanthropy was a $5 million donation to the University of Utah in 1987. The university's basketball arena is named in his honor. He also contributed more than $56 million to the business school at Utah State University and gave money for other educational and cultural purposes and to prevent homelessness.
Mr. Huntsman considered himself a conservative, but according to the Salt Lake Tribune, he "no longer identified as a Republican."
Instead, he threw his political support to lawmakers who pledged to provide funds for cancer research, regardless of party affiliation.
In 2010, Mr. Huntsman signed a "giving pledge," spearheaded by billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, that included a promise to donate at least half their wealth to charitable causes. Mr. Huntsman was critical of other wealthy people who would not sign the pledge.
"The people I particularly dislike," he said, "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.' "
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