Over the past few days, I have been overwhelmed with inspiring words, stories and examples of how my father comforted and befriended people of all ethnicities, religions and walks of life. Thank you for sharing your cherished memories.
One common theme runs through all of these accounts: Everyone felt as though they were Jon Huntsman’s best friend. He had a gift to make each person feel as though he was their confidante and ally. And knowing my father, he actually believed everyone he met was his most precious associate. His death is not just my family’s loss, but the whole world has lost a dear, dear friend.
This past week, my wife Cheryl and I sat with him in the final days of his life. We shared memories of special moments and he reinforced advice to my children. During this difficult time, my mother did everything she could to ease his pain which only worsened at night. Sleepless nights were taking a toll on both of them, but they refused to acknowledge their discomfort and difficulty, wanting nothing more than to spend another day together with their posterity.
My father’s passing leaves a huge void in our lives, but my mother’s outsized influence will ensure continuity within our family, particularly as we try to fulfill their stated goals of improving education, health care, mental health, homelessness and many other causes found in the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25.
Jon Huntsman was a generous man and he was also a genius at business. His legacy in business deals has been well documented, from selling eggs — the ultimate commodity — to building a global chemical empire with thousands of employees spanning over 30 countries. He loved the competitive dynamics of each deal and he didn’t like to lose, unless it meant winning. Sometimes winning meant walking away from a deal.
My father never used financial models, didn’t have a team of associates to run sensitivity analysis and financial returns. No, instead he’d do a quick calculation on the back of his business card or napkin. His counterparties knew he was negotiating off a meaningful discount to their price expectations, but his financial offer was never the winning formula. Instead, he made the counterparty his best friend. They couldn’t say no to their best friend. His kindness, charisma and hugs were intoxicating. They couldn’t get enough of him. Many of his contemporaries came back for a second and third transaction. They would rather negotiate with a friend, even if it meant taking a lower price. And those on the wrong side of his opinions knew he wouldn’t get even or hold a grudge. He was quick to forgive, move on and turn an adversary into a friend.
He never intended his accumulation of wealth to go toward his own personal benefit. His first meager paycheck from the military was split between his own rent and the anonymous neighbor who he felt was in greater financial need than himself.
My father was never satisfied, never having enough friends or enough money to give away. He even borrowed millions of dollars to meet a temporary shortfall of charitable commitments.
Checking into hotels was a celebrity ordeal — minus the paparazzi, security and swagger associated with fame. He greeted hotel staff with hugs and well wishes about their families, passing out $100 bills to every porter, attendant and receptionist. He negotiated the price of the room, but not the price of check-in, which cost him a multiplier higher than the room rate. When he became too ill to exercise on a treadmill, he filled his gym socks with $10,000 and passed them out to people he knew were suffering.
He never used email and he couldn’t text. Those were too impersonal. Instead, he wrote handwritten letters up until the final years, when the pain in his fingers prohibited him from scribing a letter. His posterity, now numbering just over 100, received a personal letter on every birthday and special occasion.
For the past 25 years, his labor of love was establishing the Huntsman Cancer Institute. No one, not even his own family, understood his vision and the tenacity it took to build one of the world’s most prestigious cancer research campuses in just under 25 years. He often visited the hospital during challenging times in his own life, finding strength and inspiration from those whose suffering was greater than his own. He rarely reached the end of a corridor, stopping frequently to hug every patient and accompanied family or friend. He thanked every volunteer and employee and encouraged each with the hope and love that only comes from someone who has walked in their shoes.
So I find myself fielding calls, emails, texts from his friends, business associates and colleagues throughout the world. Some I know well, others I have not heard from or seen in decades, but they still feel Jon was their dearest friend.
This week as we gathered to honor him in the building that bears his name, we — his dearest, closest friends — each took comfort in knowing that our friendship with Jon Huntsman has made each of us a better person.