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Utah billionaire Jon Huntsman Sr., father of GOP presidential candidate, dies at 80

Jon Huntsman Sr. speaks to reporters at a 2014 news conference in Salt Lake City.
Jon Huntsman Sr. speaks to reporters at a 2014 news conference in Salt Lake City. AP

Utah businessman, billionaire and philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr. died Friday at age 80, according to his assistant Pam Bailey.

Huntsman Sr. left his mark on the business world with the global company Huntsman Corp., now headed by his son Peter Huntsman. Huntsman Sr. was involved with the invention of the first plastic-foam egg carton, and he founded Huntsman Container Corp. which was made famous by creating the McDonald’s clamshell containers.

Huntsman Sr. was the father of Jon Huntsman Jr., a former governor of Utah, a 2012 Republican presidential hopeful and the current U.S. Ambassador to Russia. Huntsman Sr. and his wife, Karen, have nine children.

Early in his career, Huntsman Sr. purchased businesses with money borrowed through Huntsman Chemical, founded in 1982, according to Forbes. He eventually purchased 34 companies, including the $1.06 billion purchase of Texaco’s petrochemicals operation in 1994. His net worth was $1.21 billion, Forbes said.

He battled a painful inflammatory disorder called polymyalgia rheumatica. He also survived four bouts of cancer. Huntsman Sr.’s mother, father and stepmother each died from cancer.

Those ordeals led him to found the Huntsman Cancer Institute and secure lucrative donation funds to that center through the Huntsman Cancer Foundation. His goal was to eradicate the disease.

Huntsman Sr. and his wife were known for charity. In 2016, the couple gave away $137 million, landing them the No. 21 spot on Forbes’ top givers list that year. During his lifetime, Huntsman Sr. and his family have given away at least $1.4 billion, according to the Deseret News.

He said he grew up in a poor household. “I never forget those times, and they leave certain scars in your memory bank and in your heart that you don’t want others to replicate,” he told the Deseret News.

Obit Jon Huntsman Sr (1)
Jon Huntsman Sr. takes part in the 2015ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City. Rick Bowmer AP

In December 1988, a 6.9-magnitude earthquake killed 25,000 people in northwestern Armenia. Huntsman Sr. stepped in to help, and his assistance continued in Armenia over the years, including $53 million for repairing buildings. “From the ruins of devastation, they began to rebuild. It captured my heart … to where I said, ‘I have to help these people. I have to be part of it,’” Huntsman told the Deseret News in 2013.

The country awarded Huntsman two medals of honor and granted him citizenship.

In a 2014 autobiography, Huntsman Sr.opened up about two traumatic events during his life: The 1987 kidnapping of his son and the 2010 death of his daughter, Kathleen Ann Huntsman.

In December 1987, then-teenager James Huntsman and a Highland High School student were grabbed by a fellow student, handcuffed, blindfolded and then placed in a vehicle, according to the Deseret News. A $1 million ransom demand was placed to the family, and the call eventually traced to a grocery store, where federal agents converged.

When his daughter, Kathleen Ann Huntsman, died in 2010, Huntsman Sr. wrote in the autobiography that he was responsible for shutting off the resuscitator to take his daughter off a life-support system. She had had a cardiac arrest and was in a coma.

“My children say I have not been the same since her passing,” he wrote. “The grief over her loss continues to paralyze me when I dwell on it.”

Huntsman Sr. also served as an Area Seventy, a priesthood office, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1996 to 2011.

In an emailed statement, the First Presidency, the governing body of the church, said its members grieved with the Huntsman family.

“We honor Jon as a cherished husband, father and friend, esteemed as a leader for his exceptional capacity, commitment, philanthropy and service throughout the world,” the First Presidency said. “We express our love to Karen, to their children and family. Jon’s legacy of faithful leadership, generosity and goodness stands as a beacon for the entire Huntsman family and many others throughout the world.”

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch called Huntsman Sr. “a committed public servant, a visionary businessman, and perhaps the greatest philanthropist our state has ever known.”

“Utah has lost a lion today,” Hatch said.

Funeral plans have not yet been announced.

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