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Huntsman's journey: From high school dropout to presidential hopeful

Published July 14, 2011 11:45 am

Politics • How Utah's former governor got from there to here.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington -- Jon Huntsman Jr.'s 1975 résumé lists his elementary and junior high education, his summer jobs as a dishwasher, bricklayer and lawn mower and honors that included singing the parts of Oliver and Tiny Tim in church productions.

Of course, at age 15, Huntsman didn't have much else to add.

Now, at age 51, Huntsman can boast of his experience as U.S. ambassador, governor, business executive and White House staffer amid a host of honorary degrees, awards and accolades he's racked up during a career in the public and private sector.

The updated, bulked-up résumé is what Huntsman hopes will help deliver him the Republican nomination and ultimately the presidency.

It's an auspicious goal for a high school dropout whose tribute band thought at one point it could make the cover of Rolling Stone.

Huntsman's journey, while unsurprising to those who know him now and a few who got to know him along the way, has followed a path distinct from that of others hoping to settle in behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.

For starters, Huntsman's first visit to that austere room came when he was 10 or 11 years old, at the invitation of President Richard Nixon.

At the time, Huntsman's father, Jon Huntsman Sr., was staff secretary to Nixon and weekends with dad for junior and younger brother Peter often meant shadowing him in the White House instead of baseball games and barbecues.

"Oftentimes President Nixon would call Jon Jr. and Peter into his office and give them a tie clip or a golf ball with the presidential seal," the elder Huntsman recalls. "One time I went in there and [Nixon] was explaining what the presidential seal meant on the carpeting in the Oval Office. [It was] just the three of them."

Huntsman Jr. points to those interactions as pivotal in developing a passion for public service and elective office.

"It was something that in my earliest years left a deep impression," he said.

Eggs to riches

The Huntsman family is now wealthy. Very wealthy. Huntsman Sr. is a billionaire, junior a multimillionaire. But it wasn't always like that.

"My father was a rural schoolteacher in Idaho. My grandfather was a rural farmer in Fillmore. I started out as an egg seller in Los Angeles," senior recalls.

When visiting supermarkets to edge out competitors in favor of Olson Farms products, the elder Huntsman would bring his son along. Later, Huntsman Sr. founded Huntsman Chemical, producing plastic plates and testing them at home in their dishwasher to make sure they didn't fall apart. The younger Huntsman became his father's helper.

"I didn't start out with any money. I had to borrow very heavily starting out businesses. We always drove used cars," the elder Huntsman recalls. "Jon was probably in his teenage years before we bought a new car."

But it wasn't like the Huntsmans were living paycheck to paycheck or anything close to it. By the time Huntsman Jr. was 7 years old, his dad was president of a joint venture with Dow Chemical. By the time the son was 14, Huntsman Sr.'s container company had invented the Styrofoam package used for McDonald's Big Mac and two years later, the elder Huntsman sold that company in a stock deal worth $8 million.

As the Huntsman Corp. grew and the family gained in wealth, Jon Huntsman Jr. still worked odd jobs. He mowed lawns and later, when his family moved back to Utah, Huntsman worked as a dishwasher at various restaurants in Salt Lake City; between school years, Huntsman also nabbed jobs at a Levi's store and a sports shop.

But in his senior year of high school, Huntsman Jr. dropped out to play in his band, Wizard.

Rock 'n' roller

Howard Sharp, then a teenager at East High in Salt Lake City, heard Huntsman Jr. play the keyboard and knew he would be a great fit in Sharp's band. It didn't take much convincing and Huntsman Jr.'s rock 'n' roll years were born.

The band -- propped up with the latest snazzy equipment, courtesy of Huntsman Sr. -- played a series of LDS Church dances, high school "stomps" and an occasional gig at a teen hangout.

Huntsman Jr. likes to reminisce about those days, joking at how the band zipped around in a green Econoline van with plastic lawn chairs for seats that shifted when turning corners.

Sharp recalls how Huntsman -- whose family by then had one of the homes on the hilltop that everyone envied -- tried to fit in.

"I think he liked to fly underneath the radar screen or wished he could fly underneath the radar screen," Sharp said. "He never really flashed money around."

Huntsman preferred seedy dives over expensive restaurants (he still does) and the band frequented Bill and Nada's 24-hour diner.

Huntsman wasn't then the consummate politician he is now. The band's chitchat focused on music mainly, Sharp says, but it was clear Huntsman also had other interests.

"I don't think we talked at all about politics. But we talked about issues," says Sharp, who played drums in the band and now is a physician. "Jon did have a tendency to talk about deeper things and I appreciated that. [He] had something inside of him yearn for something more than just playing music."

Perhaps mindful of his potential future in politics, Huntsman "wasn't a pothead," Sharp offers.

"I think Jon, like most teenagers, probably experimented with a few things," the bandmate recalls. "I honestly don't ever recall [him] smoking marijuana."

Eric Malmquist, who played bass guitar in Wizard, doesn't recall Huntsman dipping into any drugs. "It was more about the music," says Malmquist, now a construction manager in California.

"Jon, I have to say, he was just a great guy," Malmquist says. "I never saw him be a jerk to anybody. I never even saw him angry."

The band, like most high school bands, fizzled as several of the aspiring rockers graduated from high school and departed for their own adventures. A plan to make their own record fell flat and Wizard was no more.

"I think [Huntsman Jr.] learned his first lesson in fiscal management when the band went bankrupt," says his father. "Out of necessity, he and the others all went on to these illustrious careers. Many people loved to hear them play but none of the people wanted to pay for it."

Huntsman Jr. got his GED and later went on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Taiwan, his first taste of living in Asia. On his return, Huntsman Jr. enrolled at the University of Utah and pledged Sigma Chi's fraternity there.

The presidential candidate didn't see his dropping out of high school or the band days as some sort of big rebellion.

"It was a momentary teenage desire to want to be a musician and [then] realizing that probably wasn't a good long-term prospect," Huntsman says. "You dream big and try to achieve your dreams. Sometimes they work out, sometimes they don't. I ended up choosing a traditional pathway in life."

That pathway, for the second time in his life, ran through the White House.

Florida and Reagan

Mary Kaye Cooper grew up in the Orlando, Fla., area and didn't know anyone in Utah when her parents moved there in 1975. By chance, she met Huntsman Jr. in the courtyard of Highland High School, a meeting that years later would prove fortuitous.

Cooper recalls seeing her future husband at the dances he performed at and ended up working with him at Marie Callender's -- "I was the salad girl and he was the dishwasher," she says -- and later a Levi Strauss store. Back then, she knew nothing of the eventual political trajectory Huntsman Jr. would take.

"I fell in love with a rock 'n' roller," she says.

The two, however, headed to various parts of the country: Cooper to Arizona State University and Huntsman Jr. to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a staff assistant and advance man for President Ronald Reagan.

Around 1982, Huntsman headed to Scottsdale, Ariz., to help plan a visit by the president; Cooper and Huntsman met up. A while later, a friend offered Cooper a job in Washington, D.C., at the Florida hospitality center, called the Florida House. That summer the couple were engaged and wed two months later.

"We give President Reagan and Florida credit for us coming together," Mary Kaye Huntsman says.

Even after the stint at the White House, Huntsman didn't head into politics. He returned to college, this time at the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated with a degree in international politics.

The Huntsmans then headed to Taiwan, where Huntsman Jr. could use the knowledge -- and the language -- he picked up as an LDS missionary to advance his father's company abroad.

"I never thought we'd be involved in elected politics," she says. "I thought maybe something in foreign policy [or] in business."

Huntsman Jr. did get his fair share of foreign policy after President George H.W. Bush in 1992 appointed him the U.S. ambassador to Singapore, making him the youngest diplomat in a century.

On his return, Huntsman entered the family business, serving on the corporation's board and later the Huntsman Cancer Institute, his family's biggest charitable arm. When President George W. Bush called in 2001, Huntsman Jr. returned to government service, this time as deputy U.S. trade representative.

Meanwhile, in Utah, then-Gov. Mike Leavitt had also accepted a job with the Bush administration as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Lt. Gov. Olene Walker moved into the Governor's Mansion and announced she would seek a full term. Huntsman and six other Republicans sought the nomination, too, but Huntsman pulled it out.

Poor to rich. High school dropout to Ivy League graduate. White House flunky to presidential candidate. It's the character arc Huntsman now cites in his campaign spots and in stump speeches.

"Jon always knew where he wanted to go and he always had goals and directions in his heart and mind," says his father.

And, who knows, Huntsman Jr. could still make the cover of Rolling Stone, though not as a rock star.

tburr@sltrib.com

Jon Meade

Huntsman Jr.

Age • 51

Born • March 26,1960 in Palo Alto, Calif.

Wife • Mary Kaye

Children • Mary Anne Huntsman, Abigail Livingston, Elizabeth Huntsman, Jon Huntsman III, William Huntsman, Gracie Mei Huntsman, Asha Bharati Huntsman

Religion • Mormon

Positions held • U.S. ambassador to China, Utah governor, deputy U.S. trade representative, U.S. ambassador to Singapore, White House staff assistant