An ambitious industrialist with pioneering innovations as grand as his vision. A self-styled diplomat with multinational interests stretching as far as his jet would take him. A passionate philanthropist with a heart as big as his wallet. And a committed Mormon with a faith as firm as the Rocky Mountains where he made his home.
All these qualities describe Jon Huntsman Sr., and they all were in full force a quarter-century ago, half a world away.
In Yerevan, Armenia, Huntsman, armed with juice, stood to offer a toast in June 1991 celebrating the completion of the multimillion-dollar cement plant he financed to ensure that Armenians could construct sturdier homes than the ones that had crumbled like sand castles in an earthquake several years earlier, killing thousands.
Addressing more than 100 prominent Utahns he had brought to the plant’s dedication, covered by a contingent of international reporters, Huntsman told his Armenian hosts that he fully supported and “prayed” for Armenian independence from the then-collapsing Soviet Union.
As soon as Huntsman finished his eloquent remarks, Mormon apostle Dallin H. Oaks rushed to gather the journalists for a quick disclaimer.
“The church does not get involved in international political affairs, and this is an international political affair,” Oaks cautioned, citing a forthcoming vote in Armenia to decide whether to split from the Soviet bloc. He wanted all the press to know that Huntsman’s words were independent of Huntsman’s church.
Oaks’ concerns became clearer later that evening during a banquet in Moscow, where Russian dignitaries greeted the visiting Utahns.
Huntsman emceed that event at which Russia’s vice president gave Oaks and fellow LDS apostle Russell M. Nelson — who is now the 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with Oaks as his top counselor — a document extending official Russian recognition to the Salt Lake City-based faith.
Knowing that this diplomatic step forward was hanging in the balance, Oaks had fretted about doing anything in Armenia that might offend leaders in Moscow.
After all, that piece of paper, achieved with Huntsman’s help, paved the way for missionaries to preach the Mormon gospel across that formerly atheistic nation (a practice now enduring limits under Vladimir Putin’s thumb) and for tens of thousands of Russians to become Latter-day Saints.
The next day, Huntsman arranged for the Utah delegation to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at Moscow’s famed Bolshoi Theater, marking the first time the renowned singing troupe had performed in Russia.
Armenians closely followed Huntsman’s journey because he had become virtually a household name. He already had spent millions on relief efforts there in the wake of the devastating 1988 quake.
Walking through the sprawling, run-down neighborhoods in the Armenian capital, the teetotaling LDS businessman would stop and, through a translator, chat with locals, who would stand in the doorways of dilapidated homes, often with a empty vodka bottles strewn around the yard.
Huntsman always had a soft spot for the poor.
Mormon apostle M. Russell Ballard, whose daughter Brynn married Huntsman’s son Peter, recalled a separate visit to Armenia, where the Utah industrialist also had built a factory and a school.
“We went to the school and saw the little children — boys in white shirts and ties, girls in white dresses — all lined up in their uniforms. Jon lost it,” Ballard recalled. “Tears welled up in his eyes. That was all the reward he would ever want to see — that those little ones were getting schooling.”
Huntsman said he developed a love for these people through his friendship with onetime business rival Armand Hammer, an industrialist throughout the 20th century who befriended Vladimir Lenin in the early days of the Soviet Union and later spent millions in philanthropic efforts there.
During the 1991 sojourn, Huntsman took the Utahns on a tour of his chemical plant just outside Moscow and announced an expansion of a partnership with area businesses. Those ties with Russia’s budding elite allowed him to introduce his religion to an evolving empire.
Huntsman had on his office wall a quote from 1974 by Spencer W. Kimball, the LDS Church’s 12th president, in which he urged members to enlarge their vision and broaden their reach to bring the Mormon message to nations “which do not have the gospel.”
“I believe we have many men in the church who can be helpful to us, who are naturally gifted diplomats,” Kimball said. “ … We should bring them to our aid and ... have faith that the Lord will open doors.”
Huntsman viewed himself as “one of those diplomats,” said Mormon apostle Ronald A. Rasband, a former president of Huntsman Chemical Corp. “He always had an interest in what he could do secondarily to help build up the church.”
When Thailand and Singapore placed restrictions on the number of LDS missionaries allowed in those countries, for example, Huntsman huddled with government officials and, within a week, they opened more doors.
He certainly helped boost the church in Russia and Armenia. In fact, his larger-than-life presence in each monumental piece of that 1991 trip drove home the depth and dimensions of his public persona. There he was — Huntsman the business baron. Huntsman the globe-trotting emissary. Huntsman the humanitarian. Huntsman the Mormon.
Missions of mercy
Five years after that trip to Armenia and Russia, Huntsman’s passion for personal relationships intersected with his international acclaim when retired Utah developer David Horne, who had remained in Armenia to oversee the cement plant and philanthropic operations there on behalf of the LDS Church, was badly burned in an apartment fire.
Upon hearing the news, Huntsman immediately fired up his private jet to fly to Yerevan and bring his friend home, where he could receive medical attention at the University of Utah Hospital’s burn center.
As his friend was carried off the plane on a stretcher and transported to the hospital, a teary-eyed Huntsman could be seen standing in the background.
Sadly, Horne died a few days later.
In April 1997, 20-year-old Mormon missionary Orin Voorheis was shot in the head by a would-be robber near Buenos Aires, Argentina.
After two weeks in a coma in an Argentine hospital, Voorheis showed little improvement and Huntsman, after consulting with then-LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, decided the young man from Pleasant Grove needed to come home.
He once again fueled up his jet and flew a medical team from Utah to Buenos Aires to pick up Voorheis and fly him to Salt Lake City.
Jon and Rick
University of Utah basketball coach Rick Majerus was a big man with a big personality. A basketball genius, he guided the Utes to numerous conference crowns and, in 1998, the NCAA title game, all the while bringing glory to the campus arena that bears Huntsman’s name.
Besides his basketball brilliance, Majerus became known for his colorful persona and his colorful language. He was Catholic, single, slovenly, eccentric, loud and crass.
Yet he and Huntsman, the charming, conservative, Mormon family man, became fast friends. Huntsman’s hand was often one of the first the Utah coach would shake at home games.
At times, Majerus, who died in 2012, tagged along with Huntsman on world travels, meeting with business executives and high-ranking government officials. The coach sometimes would show up at elaborate ceremonies in sweatpants and T-shirts.
For Huntsman, it was just “Rick being Rick.”
In 1996, the Utes were preparing for a road trip to the University of New Mexico and the University of Texas at El Paso. Majerus got word that his hoops hero, legendary UTEP coach Don Haskins, was to undergo open heart surgery and would be unable to attend the game.
Haskins had coached his team, when the school was called Texas Western, to a national title in 1966, starting five black players for the first time in an NCAA championship game.
Because of the civil rights implications of that victory — brought to the big screen in the 2006 film “Glory Road” — Majerus often cited Haskins’ move as the most socially significant basketball win in history.
And he wanted to see his friend before he went into surgery.
So Huntsman again powered up his plane to fly Majerus to El Paso ahead of his team so the two great coaches could spend some quality time together.
Reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack contributed to this story.