‘Beautifully multifaceted’: Jon Huntsman’s kids and Mormon leaders remember the Utah philanthropist who loved Elvis and chocolate ice cream

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Karen Huntsman, center, follows the casket of her husband, Jon M. Huntsman, while walking alongside her son Mark while followed by Christena Huntsman Durham, at left after the funeral services for Jon M. Huntsman, Sr., Saturday, February, 10, 2018.

Jennifer Huntsman Parkin had already spotted her dad walking around their neighborhood, exercising as Elvis Presley crooned through his headphones, so she knew what the knock at her door meant.

When she opened it, he stood there grinning with a spoon in his hand.

“Got any chocolate ice cream?” Jon Huntsman Sr. asked. He quickly snuck inside her house, which was next to his, and urged Parkin not to tell her mother. It was their little routine.

“Oh, how I will miss that knock on the door,” Parkin recounted to the 2,000 people gathered at the University of Utah to eulogize Huntsman on Saturday during his funeral, held in the basketball arena that bears his name.

She and her siblings talked of a man who liked slightly stale Peeps and singing Sam Cooke in the car. They spoke of the dynasty he created, the morals he lived by, the passion he had. He was smart and hardworking and, well, hard to fully describe.

Still, they tried.

James Huntsman said his dad always went big — even when pranking someone. Peter Huntsman joked that he thought the internet would just be a fad and email would go out of style in a year. Jon Huntsman Jr. said he lost not just a father but a best friend.

“We reflect on a life no single article, no single speech, no tribute could hope to capture,” said Huntsman Jr., who is serving as the ambassador to Russia. “He was too beautifully multifaceted for that.”

While, for Huntsman, his children and his wife Karen certainly came first, his faith followed as a close second.

LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson presided over the service and offered concluding remarks, detailing the devotion and charity of the late businessman and philanthropist, who died Feb. 2 at the age of 80. Huntsman, who often lent his private jet to Mormon prophets, served as a bishop, stake president, mission president and an area Seventy.

“Brother Huntsman — an extraordinary man, an exceptional leader — achieved great success and brought honor and distinction to the people of the state of Utah,” Nelson said.

Mormon apostle M. Russell Ballard described how after Huntsman’s son, Peter, married his daughter, Brynn, the two fathers, who were close friends, would joke about the traits their grandchildren inherited. “I had to remind Jon often that the mischievous genes might be Huntsman genes and the handsome and the spiritual genes would be Ballard.”

Huntsman and Ballard took turns wheeling each other around the hospital after surgeries, which became a frequent occurrence for Huntsman in his later years. “I don’t know how the nurses let us do that,” Ballard said to chuckles from the crowd.

Huntsman was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1991, the same disease his father had succumbed to. After a traumatic, 11-day hospital stay for treatment, he decided he wanted to change the experience for future patients. He founded the Huntsman Cancer Institute and his family, through a foundation, still guides the fundraising and marketing of the growing medical campus.

Peter Huntsman will guide that part of his father’s legacy as CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation. He has served as CEO of Huntsman Chemical, the billion-dollar industrial giant that has made the family wealthy. And, recently, Peter took over as chairman of the board, a position his father long held. He told the crowd gathered Saturday that earlier in the week, he had chaired his first board meeting without his dad.

“I’ve never felt more prepared, thanks to you,” he said, attempting to hold back tears. “But I’ve never felt more lonely.”

Huntsman expected his eight surviving children would follow his lead in faith, business, philanthropy and politics (his daughter Kathleen died in 2010 at 44). And they promised to do so in their speeches, which were peppered with personal remembrances.

(Tribune file photo) Jon Huntsman in 2005.

Christena Huntsman Durham, who administers the endowment her father started to help the homeless, remembered him as a competitive man who treated everyone like a friend.

The family would go to the park on Saturdays, she recalled, and Huntsman would time the kids at the 50-yard and 100-yard dash. He had an “I beat dad” award that he would give out if one of them could best him at a sport, a right of passage.

“You have taught us well,” Durham said. “We all have a piece of you.”

James Huntsman works on the distribution side of the movie business, after spending two decades at Huntsman Corp. He said his father always taught him to be bold and recounted his dad once painting “E-L-V-I-S” on the side of their neighbor’s vintage Volkswagen beetle as a prank.

“It didn’t take long to figure out that the biggest Elvis fan in the neighborhood was my father,” he said with a smile, calling it “pretty cool and pretty unexpected.”

Paul Huntsman, owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune, called his father “one of the most remarkable men that has walked this earth” and one who sought to follow Christ’s example. Jennifer Huntsman Parkin, who oversees the Huntsman Education Awards, stood with her brother Mark, who suffered brain damage at birth, and cherished his unconditional love.

Each child spoke, except for David Huntsman, who was not in attendance because he is serving as a LDS mission president in D.C., a post his father once held.

Jon Huntsman Jr., the oldest son, embraced his father’s passion for politics. Beyond his ambassadorships, Huntsman Jr. is a former Utah governor and a 2012 Republican presidential candidate.

He and his siblings, Jon added, “all represent a snapshot of the man we call dad.” And Huntsman’s 56 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren will be “the foot soldiers of the Huntsman family legacy.”

To the right of the dais, standing out from the dozens of flower arrangements, were two that featured the numbers “56” and “26.” There was also a large family photo and a folded U.S. flag, recognizing Huntsman’s service as a gunnery officer in the Navy. At the graveside service, the younger generations released white balloons.

Among those in attendance at the funeral were Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, state legislative leaders, the University of Utah basketball team and many from the world of business, including Gail Miller, owner of the Utah Jazz. Sitting near the front, too, was Huntsman Cancer Institute CEO Mary Beckerle, whom the Huntsmans fiercely and loyally defended during a 2017 spat with the U.

After the service, the family held an open house at the institute’s new Primary Children’s and Families’ Cancer Research Center, fulfilling one of Huntsman’s wishes to have a lighthearted community barbecue after he died.

The event was loud and buoyant, with people swapping stories while eating brisket and chicken and sneaking handfuls of jelly beans, gummy bears, M&Ms and orange peanuts.

Several men walked about wearing navy blue hats with the words “Great Great Guys” and the initials “JMH” embroidered in white. Christopher Huffman, son of Huntsman’s late daughter Kathleen, explained that Huntsman had founded a sort of club among his grandsons and male in-laws. They held an annual meeting to discuss family issues and to remind one another to live according to a code of conduct, such as opening doors for women, sticking up for one another, being kind to strangers and giving to those less fortunate.

Huntsman was Utah’s wealthiest resident for many years and one of the world’s most generous philanthropists. He gave at least $1.8 billion to charity in his lifetime. Peter Huntsman joked that his father gave away money faster than his company was earning it. But his biggest flaw, his son said with a smile, was that he couldn’t sing.

Huntsman was “completely tone deaf and couldn’t carry a tune,” he said, “but he did love a great hymn, almost as much as he loved Elvis.”

Tribune reporter Eric Walden contributed to this story.

Editor’s note • The Tribune’s owner and publisher is Paul Huntsman, a son of Jon Huntsman Sr.