Jon M. Huntsman, Sr., a passionate philanthropist, businessman and recipient of the William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership, passed away on Feb. 2. He was 80 years old.
After serving as a gunnery officer in the U.S. Navy and earning degrees at Wharton and University of Southern California, Mr. Huntsman got his start in business with a food company that later merged with Dow Chemical. Mr. Huntsman became its president at age 30. He soon struck out on his own, founding the Huntsman Container Company in 1970, which took off with the invention of the Styrofoam clamshell container for Big Macs and later led to Huntsman Chemical Corporation and the global enterprise known today as Huntsman Corporation.
In 1992, Huntsman went to his doctor for a routine check-up. He was in for bad news. The physician diagnosed him with prostate cancer. Huntsman had good reason to be afraid. Cancer had taken a heavy toll on his family. His father had died from prostate cancer only two years earlier. In 1968, his mother died in his arms. She was 58 years old. The cause of death: breast cancer.
Huntsman underwent surgery at the University of Utah. He spent 11 nights recovering in the hospital. “I was terrified the whole time,” he recalled. “And I was incredibly lonely.” The room had practically no accommodations for family members. In the darkest hours of the night—when he most wanted to look over and see his wife, his children—all he would see was an empty chair.
For all of Huntsman’s money, for all his connections, the only thing the hospital could offer was a chair. If this was the best treatment one could reasonably hope for, Huntsman wondered, what would the worst look like?
That experience—repeated again during three subsequent bouts with cancer—had a powerful effect on Huntsman. He and his wife had long been committed to serious philanthropy. They decided they would build a superb cancer institute, a place that conducted pioneering research while providing unparalleled patient care.
Huntsman toured facilities around the world, searching for ideas. He was offered a one-to-one matching grant if he would build his cancer center at USC. Then both Duke and the University of Pennsylvania offered him two-to-one matching grants. He turned down all three offers.
In 1993, the Huntsman family reached a decision. They would locate the cancer center in Salt Lake City, and donate $10 million to the University of Utah to seed the project. The University of Utah couldn’t offer matching funds, but Huntsman was undeterred. “We built here even though we didn’t get anything,” he noted. “We made that call for a couple of reasons. First, this is our home. This is where we live and work. We were happy to build the cancer institute in our community. Second, we built here because this region lacked a comprehensive cancer center. Before HCI, the six states of the Intermountain West had neither an NCI [National Cancer Institute]-designated cancer center nor a member of the NCCN [National Comprehensive Cancer Network].”
Huntsman’s commitment to the institute, which exceeded $450 million, plus over $1 billion he raised from other sources, remained steady even while his business was in crisis, doubled down when a key funding partner backed out, and even extended to borrowing against his own house to make sure his humanitarian commitments were met. His hope was that the institute’s top-flight researchers, one of whom won the Nobel Prize in Medicine, would ultimately develop genetics-based preventive treatments for the disease.
Huntsman and his wife, Karen, were committed to charitable giving throughout their nearly six decade marriage, having contributed generously to causes meeting the criterion of “relief of human suffering.” Their lifetime giving is estimated to exceed $1.4 billion. The Huntsmans’ other philanthropic gifts include $53 million to Wharton, $35 million to the Utah State University Huntsman School of Business plus an additional $50 million joint gift with the Charles Koch Foundation, $55 million to rebuild Armenia after the 1988 earthquake, and hundreds of millions to organizations that serve the homeless, the elderly, victims of domestic violence, and more.
In 2014, Huntsman was named the recipient of the William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership, an honor which highlights philanthropy’s unique role in tackling society’s greatest challenges and seeks to inspire others to strive for excellence in their charitable giving. Huntsman was presented the award at The Philanthropy Roundtable’s 2014 Annual Meeting.
“I feel very humble sitting before you today,” said Huntsman upon receiving the award. “I don’t even know what to say. It’s taken me back a little bit and I am very grateful and appreciative to you.”
A portion of this article was excerpted from The Fearless Philanthropist, a feature written by Christopher Levenick in the Summer 2012 issue of Philanthropy magazine.