J.R. Simplot, the state's richest man and an Idaho icon for longer than many Idahoans have been alive, died Sunday at his home. He was 99.
Simplot died suddenly following a bout of pneumonia from which he appeared to be recovering. His death occurred moments after he had invited a friend to his home to play cards.
Esther Simplot, his wife, was at his side.
Despite Simplot's advanced age, the news stunned many who knew him well and had repeatedly been impressed with his vigor and zest for life.
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"We had dinner at the Sandbar in Marsing a few weeks ago, and I was kidding him about making it to 100," longtime friend H. Dean Summers said. "He said he felt so damned good he wanted to try for 120."
A Declo farmboy who never attended high school, Simplot built a personal fortune recently estimated at $3.6 billion. He and the company he founded all but reinvented the humble potato, creating the first successful frozen french fries and partnering with McDonald's to sell them worldwide. The private company he began became one of the largest agribusiness conglomerates in the world.
In Idaho, Simplot was a larger-than-life figure who helped bankroll the startup costs for Micron Technology, donated millions to colleges, universities and other institutions, and drove a Lincoln with "Mr. Spud" license plates.
As a philanthropist, he gave so much money to so many Idaho causes that no one was able to keep track of it all.
In his later years, he was a familiar figure on the streets of Boise, driving a motorized cart from his penthouse at The Grove Hotel to his beloved gin-rummy games at the Arid Club. He was seen less around town, however, after a head injury suffered during a fall at the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
"J.R. Simplot was a wonderful man and a great mentor who embodied what Idaho is all about," said Gov. Butch Otter, who was married to Simplot's daughter, Gay, and father of four of Simplot's grandchildren. "He had a huge impact on my life for over 30 years, and I shall miss him."
Simplot's son, Scott, said his father's life story also was the tale of a generation that revolutionized Idaho.
"He was fortunate to be part of a huge transition taking Idaho from a raw state and converting it to the homeland we have today," Scott Simplot said.
Former Gov. Phil Batt, who knew Simplot well, said he was among the most important figures in the state's history.
"We're sad, but we can revel in his accomplishments," Batt said. "I think he did more to build Idaho than any other one person."
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