Kirby: How Jon Huntsman helped me and my now-cancer-free wife through our darkest days

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Robert Kirby.

The first time I heard from Jon Huntsman Sr. I was terrified. It was 2002 and my wife had just been diagnosed with stage 3.999-plus colon cancer.

Jon and I did not move in the same orbits. We weren’t even in the same social galaxies. All I knew about him was that he was Mormon, staggeringly rich, and had more offspring than Brigham Young.

Jon showed up when my wife’s condition became known publicly (because I wrote about it). By then, the recommendations for fighting the monster were swarming in.

According to some, my wife stood the best chance of becoming cancer-free if she would pet puppies — no, I am not making this up — hold crystals, meditate on her butt, pray to Osiris, and/or drink herbal concoctions that had the same appeal as elephant trunk drool.

It wasn’t entirely hopeless, but almost. The oncologists at Utah Valley Hospital were great caregivers, but also honest about the odds. Even with the best care, treatment was less than 20 percent successful in cases like hers.

Charms, homegrown medicines, prayer for pay — I’m sure the suggestions were well intended. But the information overload, combined with their insistence and my helplessness, forced me into a dark corner.

One day, I threatened a guy who kept trying to explain to my wife about the healing qualities of wheatgrass enemas. I lost it.

Him • “They cured my aunt’s friend’s breast cancer.”

Me • “Yeah? How are they on skull fractures?”

Lucky for Mr. Wheatgrass, Sonny was around. He couldn’t cure cancer, but he could keep me from going off the rails while we tried to figure things out.

That’s when I got a letter from Jon.

I won’t quote from it because the message was meant for me, but I’ll paraphrase for you.

According to Jon, Utah needed unconventional voices. He said I made him laugh. Before I got a huge head, he acknowledged how much of a part my wife played in keeping me in line. Utah needed her as well.

He insisted that I bring my wife to the Huntsman Cancer Institute for a second opinion, just to be sure.

Long story short, the institute confirmed the diagnosis of our oncologist Brian Tudor, and we began our yearlong hell of chemotherapy and radiation.

More than once during the ordeal I was struck by the irony of attempting to save someone by trying to murder that same person. I watched as the treatments turned my beautiful wife into something resembling Gollum.

During that time, I received other notes from Jon. They encouraged me to stay the path, that it was the best way to fight our common monster. Later, when we got the chance to meet and become actual friends, I learned to love him and his wife, Karen.

Two more experiences with Jon, if I may. First is when a ragtag committee I was part of was raising funds for a new memorial to fallen police officers.

In 2006, when we were scrambling for nickels to help pay for the $1.2 million project, Jon, on behalf of his entire family, sent us a contribution that rocked our world and helped make it possible.

Incidentally, Jon isn’t the only Huntsman to dedicate his life to Utah. On the memorial is a bronze plaque honoring Salt Lake City Police Officer William Nolan Huntsman, murdered in 1924 while protecting the public.

Two years ago, during those dark days when Jon and his son Paul fought to save The Salt Lake Tribune, my cancer-free wife and I asked Jon about the future, and whether I should accept a job offer from another publication.

“I hope you’ll stay, but no one can guarantee how this will go,” he said. “One thing is certain: It won’t be the same newspaper without you.”

In the end, I stayed. I wish Jon had, too.