McEntee: Leaving Utah bittersweet for Mary Kaye Huntsman

Published August 10, 2009 6:01 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If you want to know what Mary Kaye Huntsman is all about, watch her watch her son, William, at football practice on a sunny Monday.

Or see how she looks at her daughters, little Gracie Mei and Mary Anne, a classical pianist. Or how she talks about Jon, the son she and her husband, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., just dropped off at a New Mexico military academy to prepare for entering the U.S. Naval Academy.

In some ways, these are tough times for Mary Kaye, who's heading for Beijing Monday where her husband will assume his new post as U.S. ambassador to China. It's about profound change and separation as she returns to the Asia she has already lived twice: in Taiwan and Singapore.

Sitting in the parlor of the Governor's Mansion, she calls the past few months a "surreal experience" and paraphrases her favorite author, Anne Morrow Lindbergh: "Sometimes you have to go right to the pit to find success."

For Mary Kaye, the pit is all about packing up her Utah life, leaving four of her children here in the States -- Jon III, William, Abby, who works for ABC's "Good Morning America" in New York, and Liddy, a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

Gracie Mei, Asha, the child she and her husband adopted in India, and Mary Anne are going with their parents.

"It's bittersweet, leaving this state we love so much," she says. "People come up and say, 'Aren't you excited?' And I say, I'm getting there."

She comes close to tears talking about Jon III, who's in boot camp and can't talk on the phone for three weeks. But she knows he's there to fulfill his dream of becoming a Navy Seal, and that "he has to go through this time in his life to get there."

She sends Gracie Mei, a quiet child of Chinese birth, upstairs to get a stuffed bear, dressed in Navy whites, that a friend gave to her. Press its paw, and her son's voice says, "Keep me close in these hard times, Mom. I love you."

"I've never had a more treasured gift," she says, "because it's him."

But now it's time to head for football practice, so she, her two daughters and I jump into her big black SUV and drive to the practice field to watch William. On the way, she talks about how he used to spend a lot of time in his room, building with Legos and reading World War II history. Then one day, she says, her son decided he wanted to play, and everyone said, "our William?"

But there he is, a muscular junior at Judge Memorial High School, wearing No. 51 and practicing at fullback and linebacker. She asks him how morning practice went -- the team's on two-a-days now -- and he tells her that he threw up four times, then runs back to his squad. His dream, she says, is also to go to Annapolis and play Navy football.

"He's a tank," she sighs. "My boys, my heroes."

William will be living with her parents, although he'll be spending some time in China in November.

"You always hope your children will find their passion," Mary Kaye says. "There's no way we'd have taken this away from him."

And as of next week, she'll return to a role she played when her husband was ambassador to Singapore during President George H.W. Bush's administration. Her job, she says, will be to tend to the well-being and morale of all the other embassy families.

To her, the appointment by President Barack Obama, and her husband's confirmation last week, means the administration "gets an extraordinary servant in China, and Jon wins in that he is able to do what he does best, diplomacy. It was the right move for him."

For now, she's packing, looking after her children and studying Mandarin with Gracie Mei.

"What I've realized is, we can get through today. It's when we put the burden of tomorrow on us that we fall apart," she says. "So yes, I'm getting there."

pegmcentee@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">pegmcentee@sltrib.com



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