The Daily Pennsylvanian is a student-run nonprofit.

Please support us by disabling your ad blocker on our site.

Credit: Marcus Katz

Jon M. Huntsman Sr. never actually wanted his name on Wharton’s main building.

A long time philanthropist, Huntsman offered Wharton a donation in 1998 to thank the school for its own contributions to his lifetime of success.

“He insisted that it not be named for him,” Tom Gerrity, then Wharton’s dean, said. “But I was clear, a number of the overseers were clear and Judy [Rodin, then Penn’s president,] was clear: There’s no way in the world we can see any other name but Jon M. Huntsman go on that building.”

Huntsman was only persuaded when he learned the building would publicize his philanthropy and encourage others to give. Several years later, on Oct. 25, 2002, Wharton officially dedicated Jon M. Huntsman Hall in a ceremony attended by then Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the high-profile friends Huntsman had collected over the years.

Looking back on it, Huntsman says he would have never expected his life to bring him to that moment.

In the fall of 1955, Huntsman first set foot on Penn’s campus standing out like a self-described “tattered suitcase on a Four Seasons luggage rack.” The poor, native Idahoan was not familiar with the environment at the nation’s most elite business school.

“I hadn’t quite realized until years later the circus-like atmosphere that I to some extent created in both my dress, my manner of speech and the stories I would tell about Blackfoot, Idaho, and potatoes,” Huntsman explained. “People would bait me into discussing these areas because they found them to be quite humorous … I found them to be very serious because it was all we discussed at home.”

According to Huntsman, Wharton was in every way a gateway to a life that included a job in the Nixon White House, the invention of the Styrofoam egg carton, the building of a multi-billion dollar global chemical company, over a billion dollars of charitable donations and close friendships with A-listers like George H.W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher and astronaut Neil Armstrong.

Wharton has also been a major beneficiary of Huntsman’s success, receiving at least $50 million in donations and years of guidance from him. During an interview last month, the 77-year-old sat comfortably at his suite at the Rittenhouse Hotel, dressed in a black sweater vest, slacks and a warm smile that read more “loving grandpa” than ”billionaire businessman.”

“Many of my great friends on Wall Street spend hundreds of millions of dollars for art, and I guess that brings them some type of joy. I don’t comprehend it at all,” he explained. “My feeling is no, money is for helping somebody else reach their goals and have a better life and have an opportunity to achieve their dreams.”

The accidental Whartonite

The first home Jon Huntsman remembers living in was a two-room house with no plumbing in the Idaho cornfields. Throughout his childhood, the impoverished Huntsman family shuffled between Idaho and California in search of economic relief. His big chance to break the cycle of poverty that plagued his family for generations wouldn’t come until his final year at Palo Alto High School.

Life changed for Huntsman in the spring of 1955, when he was called to the principal’s office. There waited 1917 Wharton graduate and wealthy paper manufacturer Harold Zellerbach, who was trying to encourage more students from the school to consider attending Wharton.

Zellerbach, at the principal’s recommendation, offered a $3,200 yearly scholarship for Huntsman to attend Wharton, a school Huntsman had never heard of. With another $1,000 per year donation from a Northern California alumni group, Huntsman decided that if he worked through his college years, the sum would be almost enough to get by.

And that’s how the 18-year-old in his $29.95 suit from J.C. Penney ended up as the fish-out-of-water at Wharton in 1955.

“He came to school with a suit that his parents bought that sort of glowed in the dark,” Alvin Shoemaker, a close friend of Huntsman and a former chair of Penn’s Board of Trustees, said. “He was anything but an Ivy-Leaguer.”

Despite his initial struggles, Huntsman eventually found his niche in the Sigma Chi fraternity alongside Shoemaker and other future success stories. The young Huntsman was not familiar with the party life and never tried alcohol before coming to Penn. As he learned how to better blend in at an Ivy League school, he also learned how to have a good time.

Huntsman compared his fraternity antics to “Animal House” and used to anticipate being put on probation for his party lifestyle. He joked that his book would have been much more intriguing if his publishers allowed him to elaborate on those stories, but they “ended up on the cutting room floor.”

“The publishers don’t want to know why we stole those lamps and things out of the local hotels to put in our fraternity rooms or why we hijacked cars and put them on roofs of houses,” he said, chuckling.

Huntsman and Shoemaker have remained especially close since their days together in Sigma Chi. Shoemaker was even the person who recruited Huntsman to join the University’s Board of Trustees, and has served on the board of directors of Huntsman Corporation since 2005.

But the two don’t just hang out in the boardroom.

“We’re both avid fly fishermen, but when we go fishing, I always catch the biggest fish,” Shoemaker joked.

A fortune not his to keep

While 2011 saw over 1,200 billionaires on the planet, Forbes reported that only 19 of them had given away more than $1 billion. Among them was Jon Huntsman, whom Forbes had also ranked among the world’s 10 most charitable people. Most recent estimates say that Huntsman has given away a staggering $1.5 billion, in addition to his 10 percent tithe to the Mormon Church.

Upon graduating from Wharton, Huntsman married his high school sweetheart Karen Haight and served a two-year stint in the Navy. He held several public and private sector jobs prior to serving as special assistant and staff secretary to President Nixon. He started the Huntsman Container Corporation with his brother, Blaine, creating the clamshell container for McDonald’s Big Mac. After the company was sold in 1976, Huntsman founded what is now Huntsman Corporation, whose products are used in everything from household cleaning supplies to aerospace technology.

Huntsman’s lucrative business ventures have put him among the richest people in the world — Forbes currently puts his net worth at $1.1 billion — leading him to pursue ambitious charitable endeavors. When Warren Buffett and Bill Gates first gathered some of America’s wealthiest individuals to begin the Giving Pledge, a commitment to donate at least half of one’s fortune to charity, Huntsman called for more. He wanted the threshold raised to 80 percent.

He felt uncomfortable, he said, when individuals worth upwards of $10 billion would brag about donating small fractions of their wealth for items like a $1 million park for underserved children.

“They would sit down thinking that was really a model gift and in my mind, I would think that’s just a terrible gift,” he said. “Why didn’t you do a $100 million park? Why didn’t you go a mile by a mile? Why didn’t you really make it worthwhile for hundreds of thousands of kids?” he said. “It’s just so difficult for people to grasp the joy and the honor and the great blessings of life by giving and by sharing what they have.”

This sentiment is summed up in a letter to Warren Buffett from the Huntsmans when they committed to the pledge.

“We progressed from being leveraged to our eyeballs to realizing a degree of wealth of which we had never dared to dream, always with the understanding that it was not ours to keep,” he wrote. “Through hard work, luck at the right times, and a determination to succeed, we built a company which filled our coffers with money intended for others.”

Thousands of Wharton students alone have benefitted from the Huntsmans’ generosity. Today, it’s hard to miss their influence at Penn, whether it’s seen in the towering red brick fortress that bears his name or the intensive Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business located on the other side of Locust Walk.

In 1997, Huntsman donated $10 million to support the Huntsman Program. He gave another $40 million to Wharton in 1988 in an unrestricted gift. This was, at the time, the largest single donation to any business school. All in all, Huntsman estimates a grand total of somewhere between $50 million and $100 million dollars in donations to Wharton. He has also paid for more than 5,000 students to attend college or trade school.

For Huntsman, it’s personal.

“I’m deeply honored to assist students in the same way Mr. Zellerbach took this Mormon kid from Idaho and sent me to a school I never knew existed,” Huntsman said. “I do have great deal of feelings of honor and privilege and opportunity to see these students be able to pursue these types of education that maybe they otherwise would not be pursuing.”

When Huntsman’s mother died from cancer in 1969, he made a promise to himself that he would do anything in his power to help fight the disease. The result: a multi-billion dollar facility committed to cancer research and care, called the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah.

The impact that cancer institute had on families in the region had made Huntsman a local celebrity.

“Growing up in Utah, it seemed like if I was ever out in public with him, every single time there would be someone who would come up to him, start crying and thank him for the impact that he had on a loved one,” grandson Richard Durham, a Wharton junior, said.

'91 in the family now'

A lot has changed for Jon Huntsman since he’s made his billions. During his Penn days he was unable to afford a ticket home on breaks and resorted to hitchhiking his way across the country. When he came to visit Penn a few weeks ago, he took his Gulfstream jet. But his fortune has never made him lose sight of what’s most important to him: his family.

“We have 91 in the family now, counting children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and their spouses,” he said. “Fortunately, I have a very fine assistant who keeps track of all the anniversaries and birthdays and all the important holidays for our faith.”

Huntsman takes special occasions in his family very seriously. No matter how old or young, each child, grandchild and great grandchild gets a heartfelt, handwritten note with flowers or balloons to celebrate their important day.

Abby Huntsman, one of the oldest of Huntsman’s 56 grandchildren and a co-host of MSNBC’s “The Cycle,” always looks forward to getting her birthday letter from her grandfather.

“I have so many notes saved up from him over the years in a special box,” the 2008 College graduate said. “Very few people write the way that he does and make you feel the way that he does.”

In the Huntsman family, Wharton and Penn have always held a special place for almost everyone, whether or not they ended up as Quakers. Three of Huntsman’s sons — David, Paul and Jon Jr. — hold Penn degrees, as well as granddaughters Allison, Elizabeth, Abigail and Jacqueline. Several spouses of his children and grandchildren are also Penn alums. Currently, two family members are enrolled at Penn: grandson Richard Durham and Allison’s husband, Joseph Morgan, a Wharton senior.

“All of the boys in our family wear the Penn colors very proudly, even if they didn’t attend Penn. It’s a huge part of our family because it’s been a huge part of my grandfather’s life,” said Elizabeth Huntsman, a 2011 College graduate.

Huntsman is also known for his sense of humor. His children used to wake up on Christmas morning to a ransacked home and would find out from their dad that he and Santa had a fight.

“He relishes having a jokester side with the family,” Durham said. “He’d get one of those suckers that had a bug in it and he’d gather all the grandkids around and act out this big story about it while he’s eating the sucker.”

While Huntsman will go to great lengths for his grandchildren, there is one thing he can’t do for them.

“I have never made a recommendation to the university for somebody in the Huntsman Program that’s been accepted,” he said. He jokingly added that his response to his grandchildren gauging their shot at acceptance was straightforward: “No chance at all. Don’t even apply.”

When asked about his biggest regret, Huntsman took a long pause and admitted he’d never been asked that question before. He said that there were two major things he wished he could go back and change about his life. As a father, nothing hurt him more than the death of his daughter, Kathleen Ann Huntsman, in 2010.

“The first one would be to try to have some type of a knowledge that one of my daughters, who was married with seven children, had a drug problem and to know about it before I knew, so I could have helped her,” he said, fighting back tears. “She passed away at age 44 and that broke my heart more than anything in my life.”

Regret number two for Huntsman was also a deeply emotional item: The kidnapping of one of his sons, James, in 1987. James was briefly held by a former classmate, but recovered unharmed.

“I didn’t put them all in the book because the family didn’t feel comfortable,” he explained. “But it left some deep emotional scars on how we lived our lives, with heavy security and a lack of the openness we had before.”

‘A rarity in the world today’

When Patrick Harker was leaving his role as Wharton’s dean in 2007 to become the president of the University of Delaware, the Financial Times approached him to write about an important mentor in his life. Harker says that Huntsman immediately came to mind.

“Jon is indeed a rarity in the world today, but I am seeing more and more young leaders being drawn toward his set of values and principles,” Harker said. “My hope is that as we expose more and more students to Jon’s story and his philosophy, he will be less of a rarity.”

Huntsman’s friends and family have always called him someone who puts others first.

“We go visit chemical plants, or I’ve been over to his residential development in Eastern Idaho and absolutely he will stop and take the time to talk to all his employees,” Shoemaker said. “Not just the senior guys, but the people who are waiting on tables, or are manning the security at a chemical plant.”

It’s a characteristic of Huntsman that follows him onto Penn’s campus with every visit. Josue Badet, an AlliedBarton guard at Huntsman Hall, along with several of his colleagues shared their memorable experiences with Huntsman.

“The first time I met him, he actually walked over to me and shook my hand and thanked me for working in the building,” Badet said. “He makes sure he goes out of his way to greet everybody.”

When asked if he expected the incredible life journey that followed his first meeting with Zellerbach at Palo Alto High School, Huntsman’s response was simple.

“Never in my wildest dreams did it occur to me that [“Barefoot to Billionaire”] could have been written years later,” he said. “I would say it was an absolute impossibility, a miracle if there ever was one.”

“And I don’t think of Jon Huntsman any differently today than I did when he was a fraternity guy trying to struggle through school,” he added.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.