Billionaire entrepreneur, distinguished public servant, and father of a former governor and presidential candidate, Jon M. Huntsman, Sr. has been very fortunate in life. The company he founded in 1970, Huntsman Corporation, is now one of the largest petrochemical manufacturers in the world, employing more than 12,000 people and generating $12 billion in revenue each year. Success in business, though, has always been a means to an end—not an end in itself.
In Barefoot to Billionaire, Huntsman revisits the key moments in his life that shaped his view of faith, family, service, and the responsibility that comes with wealth. He writes candidly about his tenure in the Nixon administration, which preceded the Watergate scandal but still left a deep impression on him about the abuse of power and the significance of personal respect and integrity. He also opens up about his faith and prominent membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But most importantly, Huntsman reveals the rationale behind his commitment to give away his entire fortune before his death. In 1995, Huntsman and his wife Karen founded the Huntsman Cancer Institute and have since dedicated more than a billion dollars of their personal funds to the fight for a cure. They don’t plan to stop giving until the battle is won.
To my dear mother,
Kathleen Robison Huntsman,
who taught me,
“Sweet are the uses of adversity.”
Chasing the American Dream
HAVING LIVED ON THIS PLANET FOR MORE THAN THREE-QUARTERS of a century, experiencing more than my measure of milestones, exhilaration, triumphs, and tragedy, it is time to take stock of what I have done and observed, and to share it—all of it—including incidents and details never before made public. Many episodes will surprise, some may even come as a shock, especially to those who believe they know me. Part of my life story writes itself, but there are other areas in which details are harder to relate. Just the thought of the free falls from the highest peaks to the lowest valleys and the excruciating climbs back to the top practically gives me a nosebleed.
Don’t get me wrong: My life overall has been a fascinating and rewarding experience. The payoffs were as obvious as they were enormous, though the price of success may have been just as large. Save for a couple of obvious rewrites in the script, I would relive my life in a Wall Street minute, even if it meant making the same business mistakes.
But my ride isn’t over.
I have divided the chapters of this memoir into two parts: “Establishing the Fortune” and “Giving It Away.” It may sound materialistic, but it isn’t. As the chapters that follow will show, from simple and stark beginnings, I spent the last half-century building a global industrial empire with my family’s name on the door. In the process, I made a fortune, and for the last thirty years my focus has been to use that wealth to solidify charities, defeat cancer, educate kids, feed the hungry, and ensure women and children are not abused.
I made it to where I am today because of a solid faith in God and myself and with the unwavering support of my wife, Karen, and nine children. I made it because I come from good stock, a healthy ancestral mix of preachers and saloonkeepers who provided potent DNA for embracing values and accepting others who may not think the same as you do. This nation provides incredible opportunities, especially for those who are focused, tenacious, and willing to take risks. With determination and optimism, I bought into the American Dream. Let’s be honest, a bit of luck and a helping hand along the way is also crucial to success.
My entrepreneurial story includes inventing the clamshell packaging for McDonald’s and other fast food companies, growing a business from a single factory in California into the largest family-owned and operated business in America, creating a global petrochemical empire, becoming the first American to own a majority ownership interest in a company in the old Soviet Union, serving in the Nixon White House, and building a world-class cancer research and treatment center.
Along the way, I teetered on the precipice of bankruptcy four times. Even in the worst of times I would make a sizeable charitable commitment before the money was there or prior to a consummated business deal. My children observe that I was always one acquisition ahead of the company going under. Perhaps that is why I have lived as long as I have. Truth be told, a good portion of my health was sacrificed on the altar of success. Along the way, I was double-crossed a couple of times, saw a son kidnapped, and had a daughter die under the most tragic of circumstances. Still, I retain my wits and there remains fire in the belly at the age of seventy-seven.
I have dabbled in the writing of this memoir, off and on, for thirty years. I am glad I waited. Some of the most significant events occurred in the last fifteen years, not the least of which was the metamorphosis of my focus from building a business legacy to one of philanthropy. In that same time frame, one son became a two-term governor and went on to run for president of the United States and another leads one of the world’s largest industrial conglomerates. Others have done well in varied other areas of business. At the very least, my life is an intriguing cauldron of dreams and realities; of lessons learned and fortunes found; of unspeakable sorrows, friendships, and successes; and of adversities met and conquered.
Mine has been an intuitive life laced with commitment, values, charity, faith, and love of family. And while my wealth is now all but guaranteed, my life continues to be influenced by an often abusive father, a most caring and long-suffering mother, and early household poverty.
I made a lot of money in the second half of my life and formulated a plan for the end possessor of that fortune: to distribute it to good causes. I want to give it away—all of it—before I check out. I desire to leave this world as I entered it—barefoot and broke. To many, that may seem like an odd, unrealistic, even foolish thing. Not to me. Too many wealthy people hoard their riches, believing that dying with a large bank account is a virtue. I read about one woman who died and left her dog $10 million. What’s a dog going to do with that kind of money? Help other dogs? I see it another way: If I die with nothing because I have given it away, humanity is the beneficiary. My philanthropic focus today is the Huntsman Cancer Institute, to which Karen and I have contributed, along with other worthy charities, almost $1.5 billion to date. I intend to spend what it takes to help eliminate the suffering and death that all too often accompanies this scourge.
My pursuit of the American Dream has been a made-in-America entrepreneurial journey of risk, reward, and tumult. I literally bet the farm on business deals that were economically akin to drawing inside straights. My company and I have been in the eye of more than one perfect storm. I kept the faith and won far more battles than I lost. I love to read—and on one occasion I came across the Edward R. Murrow expression that states, “Difficulty is the one excuse history never accepts.” That bit of advice stayed with me during those devastating storms.
The quest for the American Dream has shaped this nation’s cultural behaviors for centuries. It has fueled endless visions of freedom, fame, and fortune. It suffers neither pretense nor fraud. While the Dream’s variations are many, there are but two constants: allure and risk. The American Dream dangles opportunity for all but provides a guarantee to none. For each success, there are countless disappointments. For some, the Dream shimmers like a desert mirage, forever beckoning on the horizon. For others, the relatively favorable hand this nation dealt them for openers is sufficient; they are content to let someone else chase the rainbows.
In time, the American Dream embraced all who would take the risk, in spite of cultural practices and artificial restrictions that for a time excluded certain groups. For women and people of color, the wait for basic political rights, equal career opportunities, and a level social playing field was more than two hundred years. We are still tuning the process, but in America there are opportunities for all to climb the ladder of success.
Whether due to mathematical chance or cosmic destiny, I was born in America at the right time. For a twentieth-century industrialist, there was no better time to be turned loose than the 1960s through the end of the century. It was a time when society was starting to rebuild. Some will warn that America is currently on the skids. Don’t believe it. We may find ourselves facing storms of a nature that frustrate or flummox us, but they are only temporary. Every great ship of state worthy of the name eventually rights itself.
For me, the true measure of success is not how much wealth you acquire but how much of it you give back. To be a philanthropist on a grand scale, however, the first part of the equation requires financial wherewithal. You must make money to give it away. It has been my belief that men and women of means must be benevolent stewards of their wealth because that stewardship is temporary. Their job is to see that wealth, modest or vast, is redistributed.
I am certain the genesis of my philosophy of giving springs from my humble beginnings, and the memory of having been on the outside looking in. There is also the example of my maternal grandfather who ran a small, rural motel during the ’30s and ’40s. I remember that he would allow families without means to stay the night free. He had lost his stately home in a fire; his wife died at age forty-two, leaving him with seven young children to raise; and the depression had wiped out his vast sheep raising business. He was humble, sweet, kind, chewed tobacco, and could hit the spittoon at twenty yards.
Throughout my life, I have hustled to outrun the shadow of poverty. Booker T. Washington, the one-time slave turned respected educator, believed success is measured not so much by the position one reached or the wealth one accumulated but by the obstacles one overcame in the process.
Make no mistake, there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. Good timing and the occasional helping hand, not to mention a few lucky breaks, are always involved. What wondrous good fortune to have found Karen, the ideal wife and partner, the perennial provider of love, support, and discipline to our children and, now, to an assortment of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, each of whom I love dearly. Let’s face it, without a few fortuitous actions of others, I would not have survived my infancy, let alone received an Ivy League education or had the experiences I relate throughout this book. Most of our business plans succeeded because of persuasive talking, accurate instincts, and determination. But I am the first to acknowledge it was often a matter of being at the right place at the right time. Emotion always plays a key role, too. I am an emotional man, and I often tear up when pressure becomes too intense.
Many people may understandably picture me as a straightlaced, nonconfrontational Mormon business and family man. I surround myself with loyal people inside the corporation and believe a gracious approach is more effective than bullying. I am a committed member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) and for fifty-two years served in mostly senior leadership positions. My philosophy regarding my faith can be summed up by a statement I always make to our management and leadership teams: “To be a successful leader, one must first learn to be a dedicated follower.” I gave time, energy, heart, healthy financial donations, tithing, and the use of one of my Gulfstream jets to the LDS Church. Almost all of my relatives had been inactive in the faith, so I began a new chapter. The Church has been an anchor for our family. I am as comfortable conversing with atheists as with the LDS Church president. I am fiercely independent. There has been no blinking and no regrets.
The time I spent as a special assistant and White House staff secretary to President Nixon put me at the right hand of the most powerful man in the world. I saw Nixon up close. I continue to respect him as a leader, albeit one with insecurities and who was served poorly by many of those closest to him. (Heck, I even liked Spiro Agnew, the vice president who pleaded nolo contendere and was saved from going to jail. He was a lonely person, disliked by Nixon and his inner guard. Hardly anyone would talk to him, but I found him entertaining and upbeat.)
It ought to come as no surprise to the reader, therefore, that it thrilled me beyond description to see my son Jon Jr. seek the White House as president precisely forty years after I left it in 1972, never looking back.
What isn’t obvious is that some close friends and folks outside my company whose association I enjoy often are swashbucklers of grand proportions. You will meet a couple of them later in the book.
I don’t wear a wristwatch nor do I know how to text. My idea of social media is a handwritten note to children, grandchildren, friends, or associates. I can’t abide someone texting during a meeting. I tend to conduct business on napkins, business cards, and scratch paper. I write or call my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—whose population is hovering around ninety at this writing—on a regular basis. I’m organized and usually composed, yet there is a sign behind my desk that says “All men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Henry David Thoreau is speaking to me.
Karen and I rarely go out to eat; we don’t play golf or tennis. I don’t belong to clubs. I seldom tip less than one hundred dollars because I love to see the surprise in the receiver’s eye. (Gratuities mean everything to those in the service industry. I know. I lived off tips once.) Don’t read too much into this, but I have a weapons-grade collection of Beanie Babies (whose billionaire creator, Ty Warner, I was shocked to learn, was convicted of tax evasion in January 2014), a modest assortment of classic cars, and I am a card-carrying devotee of Elvis Presley. Almost every one of our children and grandchildren has a totally incomprehensible nickname. My guilty pleasure? Reading supermarket tabloids.
I am neither fancy nor a connoisseur of fine art. (Karen, on the other hand, has a stunning collection of Native American art.) I am not into classical music, ballet, or opera—although I believe in financially supporting them and served for years as chairman of the Utah Symphony board of directors. Many think of me as being stuck in the fifties. I am full of contradictions: a chemical manufacturing magnate who dropped out of high school chemistry, and a lifelong Republican who jumped ship to form my own political organization a decade ago—the Cure Cancer Party. I contribute financially to a number of religions beyond my own.
Deep down, I’m a prankster. I was the one who started cake fights with the children at Halloween. I joined the kids in tossing snowballs at police cars from our hiding places, and then ran home the back way and quickly changed clothes to confuse any pursuers. And I confess to dressing as Santa Claus and delivering small, wrapped gifts to our good Mormon neighbors, including the bishop, inside of which were mini-bottles of liquor I had picked up free on plane flights.
I never hold grudges. My mantra is: get mad, not even. Tick me off and I will let you know about it. In a week, though, all is forgotten. It sometimes amuses my children that I come out of negotiations upset with my counterpart. Later, I would be seen with that same person, my arm around his shoulder, and being “dear friends” again. Peter takes this even further: “It doesn’t matter if you are the doorman at his favorite hotel or a lifelong colleague, to my dad everyone is a ‘dear friend.’”
Hypersensitivity can turn into a positive when connecting with other people and their struggles. When I become distressed, for example, I head over to the cancer hospital and hold the hand of someone going through chemo.
My emotions are embroidered on my sleeves and I am easy to read. What you see is what you get. While I occasionally lose my temper, I much prefer being gracious. I am an emotional person but my outbursts are rare and end quickly, and I spend the next three weeks apologizing for them. I also hate being alone. I love to hold hands with my daughters. I tear up easily. Heck, I would start getting emotional when dropping off the children at school. Daughter Christena still recalls that each time she opened the car door to skip off to class I would sing a classic Sam Cooke tune. I''d sing to her about how little I knew about history or biology, but that "I do know that I love you."
What can I say? Sentimentality is a side effect of compassion.
In the world of business, I have a reputation for being a tough but honest negotiator. I deal on emotions, which are irrefutable, rather than facts and figures, which are subject to interpretation. I have an instinctive feel for numbers. I attempt to make people believe in themselves. When it comes to bottom-line negotiating, I get right to the point and employ good horse sense. I want to get new things launched.
By looking at the big picture, I tend to avoid conflicts. Most people have to check off each of the boxes before moving on to the next step in the negotiations. Not me. Find out where they want to go and fill in the blanks on the fly. When I finish, I want the other person still to be my friend and feel he or she has won something in the bargain.
I get bored with minutiae and day-to-day operations. For me, the fun and excitement come in thinking up a new deal to add value to the company. I love it when someone comes to the meeting and opens with a “no.” (“No” is only the beginning of the conversation.) It motivates me to deal harder and more creatively. I am planning my next appointment. If someone wants to do a deal it always gets done. People do deals with people, not with companies. It’s person-to-person. Not everyone is a born dealmaker. You have it or you don’t.
I have pulled off some three dozen large (and hundreds of smaller) business deals in my lifetime, sometimes using the seller’s money to purchase their own company. I followed my negotiating rubrics in all but one of the deals. In that one, I foolishly allowed my ego to get in the way and it was a costly lesson, as detailed in a later chapter.
People today associate the Huntsman name with wealth, but I haven’t always been rich. We had a big home in the late 1970s in Salt Lake City, but what people didn’t know was that a number of the rooms in our “home on the hill” were unfurnished. When we took vacations, we would load up the used, seven-passenger station wagon and head for California. We would rent a single room at a motel and I would have three of the children come to the motel room sometime after I registered because ten humans exceeded the number allowed in one room. Usually, the vacation itinerary included a first night in Las Vegas. After tucking the children into bed in the motel “dorm” room, I would head out to a casino for a few minutes to earn enough money to allow us two rooms for the rest of the trip. It worked most of the time.
Once, in San Diego, we didn’t even have a motel room. There was none to be had. I asked a policeman if we could sleep on the beach. He said it wasn’t permitted but that the expansive library lawn permitted “the homeless” to sleep there, so we just bedded down on the grass. (We were doing just fine until the automated sprinklers created chaos at 4:00 a.m.) I gave the family a choice each day. They could choose to have a big breakfast or a big lunch, but not both. Dinners were at all-you-can-eat buffets.
It’s been my experience that those who are perceived to have a lot of money evoke a great deal of curiosity. Everyone wants to know just how rich the rich are, how they got that way, and what they do with their money. I freely admit I make more money than I ever thought I would earn. After leaving military service, I received less than $450 a month in my first full-time civilian job. But I established a goal for myself. At the time, I thought it was an aggressive goal. I would strive to earn $1,000 per year for each year of my age. Given that quest, I should be drawing an annual salary of $77,000 as I write this. Let the record show that our income exceeded our age-specific goal—by a long shot.
In the fall of 2004, the editors at Forbes magazine estimated my net worth at $2.3 billion (down $300,000 million from the previous year), which placed me ninety-second on the annual 400 list. Big deal. I was on that list for more than twenty years, and then I was off it. My net worth fell because I had other uses for the money, namely my war against cancer. After the company went public in 2005, Karen and I began moving company stock and property into our charitable foundation. Eventually, all of our wealth will be placed there, and we thought Forbes would quickly forget about us. Our remaining Huntsman stock and other leftover assets surprisingly placed us back on the Forbes billionaire list in 2014. We will now give it away even faster than previously.
The news media continually ask how much the Huntsman family has given in philanthropic donations over the years. (When, I wonder, did how much become more significant than why?) I only began keeping track of donations in the last twenty years. I enjoyed the thrill of slipping a large check under the door of a charity or just making it from “Anonymous.” Unfortunately, the IRS requires documentation on everything. Thus, part of the joy is gone.
No one achieves success in a vacuum. Along the way, as I have pointed out, I received coincidental breaks and perfectly timed help. It is not possible for me to directly compensate those who assisted me over the years in a manner remotely commensurate with the boost I received. Repayment must be in the creation of opportunities for others. To be sure, I also have been handed some bad breaks: nearly flunking out of college, four bouts with cancer, four dances with bankruptcy, a severely mentally challenged son, the kidnapping of a child, and the death of another child, to name but a few.
This book was to be a tell-all, and, in large part, that’s what it is. A few things ought not to be tossed about in public, such as confidential counsel and events that by their nature ought to remain private. I have attempted to follow a long-standing personal mantra: certain things you don’t need to tell everyone, but when you do tell something it better be accurate.
I have had close personal relationships with the last five presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was my privilege to travel extensively with all of them. When President Howard W. Hunter presided over the LDS Church, we traveled together to most continents. We were very dear friends. I also had the great pleasure of speaking at his funeral services, per his burial instructions. The relationships were particularly close with four of the five leaders, who became cherished friends and confided in me candidly and with trust. It is often difficult for a person in such a singular position as these leaders to relate closely to the individuals he works with daily in performing his role. Others, like me, can be called upon when needed (which, in certain situations, was often).
I represented a voice and opinion different from those of the president’s full-time associates, most of whom would have responded carefully and safely, making sure their responses were inoffensive and complimentary. It is not in my nature to do that. Shooting straight is the name of my game no matter who is on the other end of the conversation. But I tend to do it gently and without condescension. The expression “one can buy brains but one can’t buy loyalty” comes to mind when closely held confidences are involved. Such has been my good fortune over the past fifty years—not only with highly placed spiritual leaders but also with many of their counselors and members of our church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The same relationships applied to many of our domestic and political leaders, including several United States presidents. They know my word is my bond, and so it has been. Honesty builds friendships. I will not betray that trust.
I could almost say I had done and seen it all. I had experienced full-time military service, full-time government service, full-time church service, and had been a full-time businessman. Quite a resume. How wrong I was. Something was missing. What I wasn’t doing full time was making a difference for those not so fortunate. My name was and is on the door of many industrial complexes the world over. I have land developments, resorts, and two private equity companies bearing the Huntsman name. But the Huntsman entity I care most about sits on a mountainside overlooking the Great Salt Lake Valley. It is the fruition of our overriding mission and the true story of my life for the past quarter century. It is the Huntsman Cancer Institute. And other than our family members, the only legacy I desire to be known for is “the man who helped stop cancer.” We have not halted the scourge as yet—although we are getting tantalizingly closer—so my life continues to have grave purpose.
Even as a youngster, I had the urge to shake the shadow of poverty, to better myself, to do something grand and important, to make a difference. It kept me going; it still keeps me going in spite of a body that is a walking medical textbook. There is a natural drive embedded in each of us that accompanies us from birth: an instinct to survive. That inner strength is as powerful as it is mysterious.
I know all about that because for me things began badly.
1. In the Beginning
MY STORY DOESN’T BEGIN WITH AN AUSPICIOUS OPENING ACT. I was born “dead.”
I arrived June 21, 1937—eight weeks early—in our tiny two-room basement house in Blackfoot, Idaho. I emerged as purple as a Concord grape. The family doctor, A.E. Miller, held me upside down and gave me the traditional slap on the backside to get the breathing started, but there was no sign of life. A few gentle shakes elicited no further reaction. After a few minutes, he laid me aside inert, at the foot of my mother’s bed, concluding I was dead on delivery.
Miller turned his attention to my mother, Kathleen, lying there in the dimly lit bedroom/living room. He wasn’t surprised at the outcome. In those days, premature arrivals usually meant serious trouble. My mother painfully raised her head from the pillow and asked, “How’s my baby?” Miller, certain that I was not viable and aware that my one-year-old brother Blaine was systematically destroying his straw hat in the next room, gravely answered with a double-meaning response: “Mrs. Huntsman, you are fortunate to have another son.”
Earlier, my father had gone on a fishing trip on the Salmon River, some one hundred miles northwest of Blackfoot. He returned home to find that his wife had been in labor most of the day. He called Dr. Miller, who came to our home and examined my mother. “This birth is still hours away,” he pronounced, promising to return later.
That wasn’t good enough for my father. Off he sped in his 1936 Ford coupe to the tiny town of Thomas, nine miles away, where he taught high school. He knew that Emily Walters Olsen, a seventy-year-old widow and experienced midwife, lived there. She had been schooled in childbirth and, over several decades, had delivered a majority of the babies on the nearby Shoshone-Bannock Indian reservation located a few miles away at Fort Hall. She accompanied my father back to the sparse half-house. One look at my mother told her the birth was imminent. I arrived a half hour later, several minutes before Dr. Miller returned to begin his effort to get me to breathe.
In this remote Idaho farmland, we were far removed from the events that would change the world and our own family’s future. During this time frame Japan invaded China and World War II became closer to reality. The great dirigible Hindenburg exploded in New Jersey, killing thirty-six people shortly thereafter. But, there in rural Idaho, the focus of attention was on whether Jon Huntsman would join the living or remain breathless.
As the doctor tended to Mother, who had endured a difficult labor, Mrs. Olsen took charge of me. She ordered my father to carry me into the kitchen where we had an old-fashioned, wood-burning stove and a sink which doubled as the washbasin ever since hot water had been introduced into our home a few months earlier. She was going to try a lifesaving remedy she had used on the reservation, she told my father, and commanded him to turn on the hot- and cold-water taps at the same time. She had him hold me under the cold-water spigot, and then under the hot one, and to keep doing it until she told him to stop. In shock, my father did as commanded—back and forth, cold, hot, cold, hot—all the while rubbing and gently squeezing my tiny chest with his hand.
Still no vital signs. My father had a sinking feeling but did not give up. He and the midwife repeated the routine for several minutes more until, barely perceptible, the tiny mouth opened and closed—just once. Two of the three hearts in that room raced as they massaged my feet and legs. They saw a faint gasp for air. With forced calm, the midwife took me and gently compressed my rib cage, observing, to her amazement, that my chest was rising and falling on its own.
“He’s breathing!” they cried in unison. My color changed from purple to a deep red—so red that my father thought maybe I had been scalded by the hot water. Still, I had not yet uttered a peep. Olsen rubbed me dry, wrapped me in a soft blanket, and laid me on the open door of the stove’s warming oven. Her anxiety lessened as she watched me raise a fist to my mouth and suck on it hungrily. She washed out a medicine dropper and gave me my first nourishment: diluted condensed milk, one drop at a time. Immediately after my initial meal, I cried. With Mom holding me, everyone started crying. The year 1937 may have been one of tragedies and suffering otherwise—the Hindenburg explosion, Japan’s brutal invasion of Manchuria, a US unemployment rate of more than 14 percent, and the disappearance of the aviator Amelia Earhart—but it turned out pretty good for me.
Mom had been reading Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Listen! The Wind, so she decided to name the new baby “Jon” after the brother of the Lindbergh baby who had been kidnapped and murdered a few years earlier. My father chose Meade for my middle name in honor of Civil War General George Gordon Meade. I was fortunate to be a second son and for Mother to select the name. I know for a certainty that my father would have selected one of the many zany family names from his life—like Alonzo or Gabriel or Jedediah.
To this day, my personal hero is the late Emily Walters Olsen. I am able to write my story because she didn’t give up and because, alongside my father, she shepherded an infant through the agonizing time between womb and first breath. With those initial labored breaths, I began life sunny-side up. Olsen’s fortuitous presence foreshadowed the good fortune that smiled on me throughout most of my life.
I do not recall ever meeting Mrs. Olsen to thank her for saving my life. I hope in the eternities to come that I can properly express my love to her. My wife Karen and I did meet with Dr. Miller in 1959 during our honeymoon when we stopped in Blackfoot for Karen to catch her first glimpse of my birthplace and the surrounding area. (She wasn’t impressed.) Dr. Miller was retired but in good spirits and recalled with great clarity the three births during his forty years of practicing rural medicine (mostly on the reservation) that stood out beyond all others (which numbered more than a thousand). Mine was one of those three. He was convinced that there was no way possible I could have lived, particularly when there was no breathing after delivery. He called it the “life after death” delivery. I hugged him and cried as I left his modest home in Blackfoot.
Sometimes the best way to find out what makes someone tick is to study those from whom he or she descended. We Mormons are great ones for genealogy. At least one dedicated soul in any given family will spend considerable time and resources delving into the past to produce a detailed and far-reaching family tree. My ancestors were a resilient lot who, for the most part, toed a righteous line, although I must honestly report that a saloonkeeper or two, along with a few rascals, comprise leaves on some of the tree’s branches. Most, however, were early LDS Church missionaries and leaders who managed to earn positive reputations in Utah’s history and, perhaps, are more worthy role models. Only the last three generations of my family were inactive in the Church. Prior to that, the previous three generations were hardy pioneers and devotees of the founding prophet, Joseph Smith. One was an early LDS Church apostle, and many others were members of the early church leadership.
Most people who know me believe that my upbringing was well founded in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons). The fact of the matter is that the Mormon Church was the third religious organization to which I belonged. My parents were less than active members of the LDS Church and never discussed the church in my presence. Likewise, all of my living relatives were also inactive members of the LDS Church. My first baptism was at age eight in a nondenominational Christian church at the Naval Air Station Pensacola in 1945. Two years later, believing that it was a form of baptism, my forehead was sprinkled by a priest of the Catholic Church, which I attended for several months thereafter.
It was shortly before my twelfth birthday that the elders of the Mormon Church realized my baptism had not occurred at age eight, like other Mormon youth, and arranged for my submersion in the baptismal waters of the church of my forefathers. I knew little if anything about the LDS faith but attended regularly in spite of my family’s inactivity. I absorbed none of the doctrine, nor the basic framework and history of the LDS Church, until after my college years when I was asked to be the LDS group leader during my two-year tour of duty in the Pacific as a naval gunnery officer. My conversion to the tenets of my faith occurred almost concurrently with that of several others who were converted and baptized under my instruction. (Upon my return home from almost a year in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, I was appointed to be an early morning seminary teacher for high school students in our Southern California area.)
Four of my great-great-grandfathers, as well as some of their family members, were early converts who sacrificed much for their faith. Most of them participated in building the LDS Temple in Kirtland, Ohio (1833–36) before giving up nearly everything they owned to join the westward migration, some coming with Brigham Young, others leading or accompanying separate parties, to the Kingdom of Zion, as Utah was called by Mormons. They were devoted to their faith and endured more in pursuit of the right to freely practice it than I can ever fully comprehend.
The paternal branches of my family tree are populated with austere, no-nonsense folks. Those with attributes of graciousness and generosity are mainly found on the maternal limbs. My maternal side was predominantly populated with polygamists. It was pioneer Utah, after all. The LDS Church did not ban the practice of plural marriage until 1890. Many Utahns provincially view the state’s history as having a start date of July 24, 1847, when Mormon pioneers arrived in the Great Salt Lake Valley. They had trekked an incredible 1,300 miles to trade two decades of murderous persecution in the Midwest for a religious sanctuary in the West. It ranks as one of this nation’s most amazing migrations.
Bone-weary and often ill from the ordeal, the Latter-day Saints stumbled into the Salt Lake Valley via Emigration Canyon—the harshest, rockiest entrance they could have chosen—and stopped about three hundred yards from where the Huntsman corporate headquarters building now stands. An advance party led by my great-great-great uncle, Orson Pratt, had reported back to leader Brigham Young that real estate on the far side of the pass was not all that desirable. Young, however, felt he had received a revelation from God that the valley would become the Kingdom of Zion for His flock. “This is the right place,” he assured the Saints. Every July 24, Utah honors those hardy pioneers.
Utah’s pioneer heritage is reenacted on that very spot most days of the year, at This Is the Place Heritage Park, in which the Huntsman family is represented prominently. Among the park’s historic buildings, relocated from their original building sites, is the Huntsman Hotel and Saloon, an exact replica of the inn built in Fillmore, Utah that was operated by my great-great-grandfather Gabriel Huntsman and his descendants more than 140 years ago.
Naturally, several Indian tribes have taken exception to the expurgated view of Utah’s development. And, truth be told, the first Europeans to set foot in Utah were two Catholic priests, Silvestre Vélez de Escalante and Francisco Atanasio Domínguez, missionaries who explored much of central Utah in 1776. They were seeking—in vain, as it turned out—a northern route to the California mission settlements. Apparently, the friars didn’t see much potential and passed through. The state also was visited by mountain men, including Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith; a number of Hudson Bay Company trappers; and explorer John C. Frémont.
The first Mormons set up camp in that summer of 1847 on territory that arguably belonged to Mexico. It wasn’t until the following year that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo marked the end of the so-called Mexican War and put the region securely in US hands. Many of my ancestors came with or followed Brigham Young into Utah along what would become the Mormon Trail. It was from that same spot at the mouth of Emigration Canyon that my great-great-grandfather Parley P. Pratt, a respected apostle in the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a leader of the second wave of Mormon immigrants from Illinois (the group that actually pulled the famous handcarts), got his first look at a fledgling Great Salt Lake City.
The Mormons arrived in Utah before the American West, save for Southern California, had been settled and, with a concerted effort, made the desert bloom. They called their newfound kingdom the “State of Deseret” (the word deseret means “honeybee” in the Book of Mormon and signifies hard work and sense of community). The ambitious and controversial Young was a big-picture type of guy. His State of Deseret encompassed present-day Utah and Nevada, plus unsettled parts of Arizona, California, Oregon, Idaho, New Mexico, and Wyoming. He was a master planner who laid out streets and key community elements in a fashion that earns him praise from modern-day urban planners.
In 1850, US President Millard Fillmore signed the bill creating the Territory of Utah, an area considerably smaller than Young’s State of Deseret. Moreover, having failed to appreciate the religious connotations of Deseret, Congress named the new region “Utah,” after the Ute Indian tribe. Fillmore did find it appropriate, however, to appoint Young the first territorial governor. Young was so thrilled with the recognition he reciprocated by naming a central Utah county “Millard” and, in a further flourish of appreciation, named its county seat Fillmore—a town that did not exist when it received the honor—and declared it the territorial capital.
Millard County, home of nearly all of my pioneer ancestors, is rugged and sparsely populated even to this day. Fillmore remains a farming community of some two thousand residents, many of whom are related to me. Though I spent little time there as a child, I consider Fillmore my ancestral home. On my mother’s side, my great-great-grandfather Parley Pratt had twelve wives, the last of whom he pursued and married in northern Arkansas, an event that proved to be his undoing. He was shot and then stabbed to death in Arkansas in May 1857. Mormon history books state that he was on a church mission at the time of the murder. He was killed by the estranged but no less enraged ex-husband of wife number twelve.
Pratt was a man of contrasts, simultaneously obedient to his church and fiercely independent. A visionary, he was the first to see there was a shorter way over the mountains and built the first road through present-day Parley’s Summit, saving travelers several hundred miles. He is well known in Utah history, having explored the Utah territory for Brigham Young and served on the legislative assembly of the State of Deseret, among a long list of other secular and church roles to his credit. He was a missionary of incredible stamina, receiving members into the LDS Church in England, South America, the South Pacific Islands, and Canada.
Pratt’s sixth wife, Belinda Marden Pratt, my maternal great-great-grandmother, has a story worth telling in her own right. She and her first husband, Benjamin Hilton, were Baptists when they were married in New Hampshire. She later converted to Mormonism; he followed her and, for a while, tried to embrace its practices. He was not successful and began to berate church leaders, giving Belinda a bad time for her fervent beliefs. Things got so uncomfortable that she ran away to Nauvoo, Illinois on the advice of one of the church’s apostles, Lyman Wight. Benjamin divorced her in absentia and in November 1844 she became Pratt’s sixth wife and followed him to Utah.
Parley P. Pratt is recognized widely as one of the most gifted missionaries and early leaders of the LDS Church. On March 2, 2003, at the invitation of then LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, Karen and I joined Hinckley and his wife Marjorie and Elder and Sister Russell Ballard (a member of the Twelve Apostles) on a visit to Alma, Arkansas to pay our respects and put some flowers on Grandfather Pratt’s grave. It was a marvelous trip with major speaking engagements along the way to large crowds in both Memphis and New Orleans. President Hinckley was so respectful and kind on that journey and read extensively to all of us from my grandfather’s autobiography. He called Pratt one of his “early church heroes.”
Following Pratt’s death in 1857, Belinda Pratt was left alone in Salt Lake City, struggling to provide for her children and enduring more than ordinary hardships because her family had disowned her when she converted to the LDS faith. She eventually took her children, including daughter Isabella (my great-grandmother), to Fillmore in 1871. There, she held high-level positions in the church’s women’s auxiliary known as the Relief Society and clerked in the Relief Society’s Cooperative Store. A determined and resourceful person, she taught school and took in boarders to provide for her family.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, another of my ancestors became one of the first converts into the fledgling church headed by the charismatic founder Joseph Smith. After joining the LDS faith in New York, Joseph Robison brought his wife, Lucretia, to Fillmore in a wagon train in 1854. Their son, my great-grandfather Alonzo, married Belinda’s daughter, Isabella Pratt. Alonzo helped build the Utah Statehouse in Fillmore and, at different times, was the town’s sheriff and mayor. Isabella held many church and civic positions, including school trustee and twice was elected Millard County recorder.
Isabella and Alonzo had twelve offspring, one of whom was Alfred, my grandfather. With Isabella’s permission, Alonzo also took two other wives with whom he sired seventeen more children. Alonzo maintained three homes to keep his domestic life peaceful. Isabella was staunchly loyal to the extended family concept and reminded everyone each Thanksgiving that there were no half-brothers and half-sisters in the bunch, only full-fledged siblings. Unfortunately, Alonzo had to flee to Arizona to escape federal marshals who had been sent to arrest polygamists after the practice was outlawed in 1890.
During the early 1900s one of my grandfather’s half-brother’s sons became county sheriff and no one else was chased out of town for polygamy. Heck, in February 2014 my double first cousin—his father was married to my mother’s sister who died at his birth and he later married my father’s sister—passed away in Fillmore. He had spent most of his life excommunicated from the LDS Church and adhering to the fundamentalist LDS faith as a polygamist. He had six wives, thirty-nine children, and upwards of two hundred grandchildren. His obituary in The Salt Lake Tribune read as follows: “The deceased was survived by his loving wife and a colony of children, grands and greats!” On my paternal side, great-great-great-grandfather James Huntsman settled in Fillmore in 1852. He also was among the first members of the LDS Church, having converted in Perry, Ohio in 1831. A handsome but aggressive man of imposing stature and explosive temper, Huntsman had been one of Brigham Young’s bodyguards. He also possessed a respectable amount of business acumen. James’s son, Gabriel, married Eunice Holbrook, who looked after their business holdings when LDS Church leaders selected her husband to undertake a mission by handcart to Canada in search of converts. Gabriel later opened the Huntsman Hotel in Fillmore (later moved to This Is the Place Heritage Park). The hotel was quite successful, becoming one of the first hostelries in Utah with indoor plumbing.
All went well until Gabriel got it into his head to go looking for a second wife. Eunice tracked him to the nearby town of Holden where he was found in the company of a young woman. Eunice ordered him home and saw to it that he remained monogamous ever after.
Their oldest son was my great-grandfather, Gabriel “Riley” Huntsman. Like his father, Riley was a natural-born entrepreneur. He worked alongside his father at the Huntsman Hotel. They added a saloon, meat market, and mercantile store. After his father died, Riley bought the Huntsman Hotel and continued to operate it successfully. Riley married Hannah Hansen, a Danish immigrant whose family left the church after a run-in with local Mormon leaders. A strong-willed young woman, she remained loyal to her faith. By the time she was sixteen, she was teaching bookkeeping at the Millard Academy. Riley and Hannah were well suited for each other and operated several successful businesses. Riley cashed in the saloon business in 1894 in order to expand the meat market and mercantile, but found the building too far from the center of town. They moved the store, section by section, to a more desirable location. It wasn’t long before they had the largest mercantile operation south of Salt Lake City.
Their first born, Alonzo, was my grandfather. Alonzo Huntsman was an impressive man, exceedingly bright and capable. He was put in charge of herding forty to fifty head of cattle at a young age, but he was afraid of coyotes and found he preferred the comforts of home and the safer world of academia to the rigors of the open range. A hard worker, Alonzo did well in school and was elected president of his senior class at what is now the University of Utah, where, in 1906, he graduated at the age of nineteen and landed a job as a teacher in Payson, Utah. He went on to become superintendent of schools in Millard County, while operating a fair-sized ranch on the side.
In 1909, tragedy cast an everlasting shadow over my grandfather’s life. Alonzo’s fiancée, Nellie Melville, and his sister, Edna, both in their late teens, were attending Brigham Young University in Provo. Alonzo was in Provo visiting Nellie and invited Edna to join them on an outing to see the new streamlined passenger train The Flyer as it came through town. For some reason, the three decided to walk on the tracks. Just as Edna stepped onto an iron rail,The Flyer came roaring through the Provo station without slowing. Edna was hit full force by the speeding locomotive and was carried for some distance. She died the next day. My grandfather never got over her death.
That event may explain in part how Alonzo came to have a volatile temper. His size and ornery disposition intimidated nearly everyone, including his children. Not exactly a warm individual, Grandfather Huntsman’s favorite descriptive of certain individuals began with goddamn, followed by any combination of his favorite pejorative adjectives, such as lazy, disgusting, ungrateful, stupid, and incompetent. He referred to all of his grandsons as a Little Shit. I thought that was my name until I was about five years old.
Alonzo and Nellie Huntsman had five children in rapid succession. The first, Alonzo Blaine Huntsman, was my father. Because the home was crowded, young Blaine spent many of his formative years in the more peaceful Fillmore home of his mother’s parents. With his typical tenacity, he took up the violin and eventually played first chair in the University of Utah symphony orchestra during the 1928–29 academic year.
By standards of the day, the Huntsmans were somewhat prosperous—that is, until the Great Depression. When the banks in Fillmore collapsed, Alonzo was left with precisely fifteen cents. My father was forced to drop out of school after his freshman year. He rode the range for the next few years, saving money to attend Armstrong College of Business Administration in Berkeley, California for a year. That ended when his money ran out. He worked as a ranch hand until 1934 when the Depression eliminated even those jobs.
My mother’s side of the family was of a different world entirely. Life was hard for my grandfather, Alfred Robison. His wife Mattie died in 1925 at the age of forty-two, which was devastating for Alfred and the seven children Mattie left behind, one of whom was my mother, only fourteen at the time. A year after Mattie’s death, the family’s home burned to the ground. Alfred lost almost everything in the Depression, and a second wife would later leave him. Despite the hardships, Alfred was always warm and generous and he tried to stay true to his Mormon faith throughout his life. He chewed tobacco and didn’t attend church, but a more Christlike man never existed. I believe he instilled in me kindness and generosity. He always found ways to help those who were less fortunate. He owned a motel in his later years and regularly provided free rooms or discounts to itinerants and those in need. I was thirteen when he died. He has been a role model for me.
It is important to note here that Grandmother Mattie’s death at such a young age was probably due to breast cancer. There were no medical doctors in Fillmore then, but those who attended to her surmised that the cause of her death was cancer. Grandfather Alfred died of melanoma and esophageal cancer after suffering immensely. My mother eventually was to die young of breast cancer as well, which clearly indicates that both sides of my mother’s family carried the cancer gene. My family’s genetic predisposition to this horrific killer was a major influence on my decision to establish the Huntsman Cancer Institute and to devote so much of my life to fighting the disease that has been described as “the emperor of all maladies.”
Some of my happiest memories involved my mother’s two brothers, Lon and Hal Robison, hardscrabble farmers who enjoyed their liquor. I looked up to them, although not for that reason. I was allowed to stay with them whenever our family would visit Fillmore in the summers. I remember Lon and Hal taking Sonny (my brother Blaine’s nickname) and me hunting, fishing, and camping. They were fathers in absentia. My uncles were a couple of characters, but they were kind and gracious. Being with them was one of my joys, and their good-natured ebullience taught me many positive lessons, such as looking at the glass half-full instead of half-empty. Without jobs or any money to speak of they were still upbeat. They shared what little they had. A number of town folk thought my interactions with them were steps down the road to perdition.
Unassuming Uncle Lon had no children and only a sixth-grade education. A lonely man after two failed marriages, he seemed to enjoy taking me under his wing. I idolized him. Once during World War II, Uncle Lon gave me his new shoes (we wore the same size) and his pocket watch. It was much later that I realized he barely eked out a living and that he had no business parting with necessities he couldn’t afford to replace. Uncle Hal was the more formidable of the two, but he was no less kind and caring. In World War II, he received a battlefield commission and a bronze star, returning home from Germany a captain. The only intolerance he showed was toward bullies and hunters who shot deer without antlers. He genuinely liked people and had a reputation for being self-reliant, inquisitive, and straightforward. I would like to think it was their genes that helped me develop those qualities.
They were salt of the earth, albeit chain smokers and heavy drinkers. Often Uncle Lon would consume a six-pack of beer for breakfast. Uncle Hal’s typical fare would consist of tomato soup spiked with Tabasco sauce and vodka. He would drink the concoction straight from the soup can. They were pure, decent souls and I loved them dearly.
Well into my first job, I decided to do something for Uncle Lon, who spent so much of his life giving me love and attention, not to mention a sense of direction and the self-confidence to head out on life’s journey. Having little financial sense, Lon lived on about $150 a month. His pickup, nicknamed Old Gypsy, was ancient, although when he let me drive it as a kid on the back roads of Millard County, it was a marvelous machine. I thought I was driving a Rolls-Royce.
In 1966, I treated him to a new pickup as a surprise. My annual salary at the time was $10,000. From my California home, I ordered a $6,000 baby blue Chevy pickup from a Salt Lake dealership. Karen and I realized that we would spend a year in very sparse conditions to pay for the truck—but it was worth every penny. I arranged for a friend to drive it to Fillmore on Christmas Eve and park it in Uncle Lon’s driveway. A note, thanking him for all he had done for me, was left on the front seat.
Considerable time elapsed before there was a response. True to his nature, honest Uncle Lon had seen the shiny new vehicle in his driveway. He knew it wasn’t his, so he assumed one of the neighbors had parked it there. He didn’t touch it or look inside until much later in the week when, after no one came to claim it, he finally found my note. Using a neighbor’s telephone, he called me in California. Choked with emotion and barely able to speak, he managed to tell me what that meant to him.
I always gravitated to my mother’s family. Lon and Hal seldom had much money or full-time jobs, living off the land and relying on what the government and I gave them in later life. They weren’t unemployed; it was just a way of life. They considered themselves fully employed and lived off the land. They hunted and fished whenever they wanted, but only to eat. Licenses? They paid little mind to such bureaucratic nonsense. I considered them great American icons. They were handy and resourceful and could fix anything. I offered one of them a job as a mechanic, but he only stayed on the job for two weeks. He said it gave him claustrophobia.
As a boy, I was never truly comfortable with my father’s side of the family. In fact, the Huntsmans and Robisons did not have a warm relationship. From the Huntsmans, I learned fear and trepidation. From mother’s family came love and empathy. Mother was a real joker in school but a good student who excelled in literature and debate. Following her father’s example, my mother began a two-year stint as an LDS missionary in the backwoods of the Deep South at age twenty, a rather uncommon experience for a Mormon female in the 1930s. Her experience with the adverse conditions on that mission would serve her well during the lean and difficult years ahead. Although my father and mother had known each other since they were children, it wasn’t until after her mission that my father took a serious interest in her.
As my parents grew fond of one another, the Great Depression was casting a pall over the nation. Dad had to go to Salt Lake City to find employment. No sooner had he landed a job than he contracted mumps, a serious illness in those days. Mother, who had remained behind in Fillmore, traveled with a friend to Salt Lake City to check on him. Her devotion and concern confirmed that she was the woman for him. He asked her to marry him and she accepted. Once married, Dad was determined to complete his education. To earn enough to return to college, my parents opened the Arrowhead Bar in Fillmore. It started out as a restaurant, but after Prohibition ended in 1933, its best-selling product was beer.
My mother was a devout Mormon, forbidden to imbibe alcohol let alone to be a purveyor of it. Nevertheless, she understood these were hard times and did her best to support her husband. She quit her job as a dental assistant and pitched in with the new business. Dad was a member of the LDS Church, too, but he did not practice his faith. Honoring the preferences of church leaders took a backseat to his desperate need to earn enough money to get back into school. While many Mormons were scandalized by the sale of alcohol in the restaurant, other folks were thirsty, ensuring a brisk business in homemade pies, sandwiches, and beer. During the Pioneer Day celebration in 1934, my parents reported clearing an astounding forty-five dollars. Brave souls entering through the front door had to pass by the city marshal who had his nose pressed against the window, keeping tabs on who was buying what. My father recalled selling a lot of beer out the back door that day. “The whole county was thirstier than I ever suspected,” he told later.
By the end of that summer, my father signed a promissory note for the tuition and entered Brigham Young University at Provo. He graduated in the spring of 1935 with a business degree and a Utah teaching certificate and began scouting for rare teacher openings. A school district in Salt Lake County had a position open which paid $85 a month, but when Dad learned of another opening in the tiny eastern Idaho farm community of Thatcher that offered $125 a month, he hitchhiked north to apply. He found the district’s clerk and the chairman of the school board in the latter’s ranch corral. They said they would award him the job, primarily because he did not smoke, but there was a major problem: he lacked the requisite credits for his Idaho teaching certificate and a specific certificate in science, one of the subjects he would be teaching. Dad told the clerk he would obtain the necessary credits by attending summer school at the University of Idaho in Moscow, located in the state’s northern panhandle region, knowing full well he had no way to pay for it. Nevertheless, he told the Thatcher school officials to sign him up and he headed back to Provo to discuss the situation with his new bride.
Always supportive, Mother responded by selling her precious cache of bottled fruit to their landlady and used the money to buy two bus tickets to Moscow. They somehow scrimped through, renting a shabby apartment near the UI campus for fifteen dollars a month. Through pure tenacity, Dad earned the necessary credits for an Idaho teaching certificate but still needed the critical science certification. Without enough money for the return trip to Fillmore, my mom and dad hitchhiked as far as Provo. They stayed with relatives while Dad tackled the missing science credits, the final impediment to the Thatcher post. He enrolled in a correspondence course and a sympathetic BYU chemistry professor named John Wing left the lab window unlatched so my father could crawl through early each morning to set up his experiments. Wing would arrive to supervise his work. After a week of ten-hour days in the lab, Blaine took the exam and passed with a C grade.
In the late summer of 1935, my parents left for Thatcher, with their combined belongings stowed in a trunk and a twenty-five-dollar loan from a cousin in their pockets. Uncle Lon drove them to Idaho. Thatcher consisted only of a couple of buildings. My parents rented a room in the back of the barbershop.
It was a pioneer existence—no hot water, no indoor plumbing, no car. When Mother became pregnant with Blaine Jr., she and Dad would hitchhike thirty miles each month to see the doctor. Toward the latter half of the school year, they were able to move from the barbershop apartment to a small home and, at last, to buy a car. It was in that newly purchased Ford that my father drove my mother to Fillmore in late April to be with her family for the birth. After nineteen hours of labor, Alonzo Blaine Huntsman Jr. arrived on May 26, 1936, during a fierce electrical storm that caused a power outage in the doctor’s office. The physician had neither a flashlight nor candles and relied solely on a small battery-powered examining light to facilitate Mother’s delivery in the darkness.
My father was determined not to return to Thatcher. It was too small and remote, especially with a baby. There weren’t any teaching jobs in Millard County, so he accepted a position at the larger high school in Thomas, Idaho. My parents rented a tiny basement apartment in the nearby city of Blackfoot for ten dollars a month, spending another three dollars a month to rent a wood stove for cooking and heating. Things were a little better there, but it was another year of rustic existence, especially for my mother. Full indoor plumbing was a luxury yet to come. Compared to Thatcher, though, Blackfoot was a metropolis. My father was happier in Thomas, where he was welcomed as the handsome, sophisticated new teacher from BYU. One of only four teachers at the high school, he taught English and math, directed the school orchestra for another five dollars a month, and played his violin at community events for a few extra dollars.
Mother never complained about having to wash my brother’s soiled diapers outdoors in the elements. Bundled against freezing temperatures, she pumped icy water into a large pail, braced herself against the wind, and rinsed and wrung out every diaper with her bare hands. My mother always set a loving example. She was a wonderful, accepting person, totally dedicated to her family. She was a Robison. I loved her more than words can describe.
My father was stern, strict, and quick of temper. Anger was his sole emotion. I seldom saw him smile, even around his grandchildren. He brooked no impertinence with regard to his authority. At times, he was verbally and physically abusive to us. A private and antisocial person, he would not permit my mother to join any organizations, attend church, or drive a car. This left her somewhat a prisoner in her own home. Yet, she acquiesced to my father’s will, bearing isolation with dignity and grace. Her faith in her sons, which eventually would number three, was freely practiced and absolute. With love, generosity, and graciousness, this angel on earth, Kathleen Robison Huntsman, instilled in me a high level of self-confidence. She, more than anyone, is the reason I had the courage to dream and to follow that vision as the primary inspiration for the Huntsman Cancer Institute, which was to follow many decades later.
Yet I had a certain admiration for my father, as uncompromising and abusive as he was. His ambition exposed us to a broader world than we would have known had we remained in eastern Idaho throughout his career. He demanded a work ethic that serves me to this day. His exacting standards drove us to excel. Nor can I overlook the fact that Alonzo Blaine Huntsman saved my life—literally (at birth) and figuratively (some twenty years later when I nearly flunked out of college).
My religious education waxed and waned during much of my childhood. My mother was devout in her heart, but my father was inactive and harbored ill feelings toward the church of his ancestors. Because he sold beer in Fillmore, he and mother had to marry in a civil ceremony rather than in the LDS Temple. Dad resented having been denied this privilege for what he felt was a ridiculous reason. He was being penalized for trying against steep odds to make a living during the Depression. (Eventually, my parents did marry “for time and eternity” in the Logan, Utah LDS Temple.)
My mother deeply regretted the absence of full participation in church activities, but she stayed away out of loyalty to Dad. Later, after the war, when my father was away in the navy, however, she would take us to LDS services that had started up a considerable distance from where we lived. We were residing in “navy housing” in nearby Warrenton, Florida, whose population contained no Mormons other than us, let alone an LDS Church. Occasionally, she would send us to the nearby Catholic Church or to the nondenominational Protestant services that met each Sunday morning in the naval station auditorium. I was actually baptized the first time by a Protestant naval chaplain in 1946. It wasn’t until we returned to Idaho that I was baptized into my ancestral LDS faith, when I was nearly twelve years of age.
Perhaps it was this intermittent exposure to several religions that allowed me to be comfortable in my adult years with people of other faiths. But as is often the case, my spotty background in the LDS Church put me in a position of being on the outside looking in when we lived in heavily Mormon areas. I was an observer as much as a participant; I had more opportunities than some to think hard about what I saw. My independent streak sometimes led me to question things that others took for granted.
Christmas morning 1945, I received a note under the tree from Santa Claus. I had asked Santa for a bike. The note said because of the war, the government only “made rubber” for the military, so he could not bring me a bike because he couldn’t get rubber for tires. Until he could get rubber, the note concluded, no bike. When Santa finally did bring a bike two years later, it was only half a bike. I had to share it with my brother Sonny.
The first home I remember was a two-room stone structure with an outhouse. Sonny and I had plenty of backyard in which to play. During bad weather—which was much of the time in that neck of the woods—my mother sang songs, read us poems, and organized indoor games. We had no radio and precious few toys. Entertainment was limited only by our resourcefulness. Such an environment inspired creativity and self-reliance.
We were just getting the hang of making up games in the cornfield out back when my father felt it was time to move on. I was four, Sonny a year older. There was a teaching vacancy in Pocatello, twenty-five miles to the south. It was the region’s largest city and the site of the two-year southern branch of the University of Idaho (later to become Idaho State University). The Pocatello teaching post was more prestigious than the position at Thomas High—and it paid more. Dad held out little hope of landing the job, but he went to Pocatello for the interview. Dad and Mom caught up with the superintendent just as he was leaving for a golf game. “Well, we won’t keep you,” said my father after he had introduced himself and left an application. “Have a good game.” Apparently, the man did, perhaps associating his great golfing round with my father. Whatever the reason, a teaching contract arrived in the mail a few days later. Dad would be teaching math and English for $140 a month plus an extra $10 to direct the junior high band and orchestra.
We rented a cramped apartment in Pocatello, but this time the Spartan living was worth it. My parents’ scrimping enabled them to build a home on a small parcel of land in an alfalfa field on the outskirts of the city. Board by board, Dad constructed our first real home. He took a second job at a gasoline station to help underwrite construction costs. Sonny and I helped by clearing away rocks, stacking lumber scraps, and doing clean-up chores. I am not sure how effective we were at that age, but it provided our first taste of work. The new house was small and cost $4,000, but we felt like royalty. The first year we lived in the basement while the upper story was being finished. When we finally inhabited the main floor, Sonny and I had a bedroom to share. No longer would we be sleeping on camp cots at the foot of my parents’ bed. And, if that wasn’t swanky enough, we finally purchased a radio.
The house still stands today at 510 E. Stansbury Street in Pocatello. Of course in the past seventy years it has been enlarged several times and is comfortably located in a real neighborhood. We drive by to show the children and grandchildren, as we do the old house on Fisher Street in Blackfoot where I was born. For my sixtieth birthday all the family rented a Greyhound bus to make a tour of the area. The town of Thomas did not exist, but short of that everything else was hardscrabble but surviving.
I became fast friends with the only child of the couple next door. The relationship with Jim Fogg was to last a lifetime. Fogg spent so much time in the Huntsman household that my parents often referred to him as their third son. Like most people in those days, we would gather in the evening to listen to the radio. The only broadcasts I can recall were radio episodes of The Lone Ranger and his trusty companion Tonto and President Franklin D. Roosevelt talking about developments in the war and the devastating effects both in the Pacific Islands and in Europe.
Jim and I started school in 1943. The following spring, my father’s youngest brother, Clayton, was killed in an army flight-training exercise in Virginia. The death deeply affected Dad and he enlisted in the navy. Because he had a college degree, the navy sent him to officer training school in Pensacola, Florida. Mother, Sonny, and I moved back to Fillmore to await our next move. Late in 1944, Ensign Huntsman sent for his wife and children and we drove across the country to the Pensacola naval base. The neighboring Warrenton School had only the first four grades, all in the same room. We felt like outsiders, which we were. The only friend I had was Sonny. Yet, as I look back, those three years in Florida were the happiest time of my childhood. My big brother and I became close, like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. The weather was wonderful and we spent time at the beach on the Gulf with our dog, Cruiser. Left to our own devices, imagination fueled our adventures. The comings and goings of great ships and airplanes provided a glimpse of the outside world.
When the war ended, the only thing I can remember is joining people moving up and down Pensacola streets cheering at the news. Best of all, I knew we would soon be moving back to Idaho.
During the summer of 1946, we returned to Fillmore to stay with family. Sonny and I enrolled in school and soon Mother was again pregnant. Because she had access to free medical care at the naval hospital, my father signed up for an additional year in the service and back we drove to Pensacola. This time our school was a new base facility for military dependents. My father was its first director. Clayton arrived on April 5, 1947, the only one of us to be born in a hospital. He was named in honor of Dad’s deceased brother. A month later, my father was discharged from the navy. He accepted an offer to be dean of boys at Pocatello High School for the unbelievable sum, at least to us, of $279 a month.
We headed back to Pocatello—Dad and I in our 1936 Ford coupe and Mom, Sonny, and the baby on the train. I don’t remember hearing how the train ride went, but our journey in the car was a harrowing experience. We slept in motels without bathrooms, in people’s homes, and in the car. My father and I got lost once, had a mechanical breakdown in Texas, and ran into a cyclone in Colorado. I was scared to death the entire trip. To this day, I dislike long car trips.
Back in Pocatello, there were no bays, beaches, or bayous to explore, but they were replaced by streams with the enticement of fish. We pedaled our bikes more than ten miles to get to those fishing holes. It was there that I developed a passion for fishing that has remained with me. Except for the fishing and occasional hunting trips, Pocatello was real city living. We turned to the streets, cemeteries, makeshift baseball diamonds, and empty lots for our adventures.
The New York Yankees were our heroes, with Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, and Joe DiMaggio, yet when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, it didn’t mean much to our gang because Pocatello was a railroad town and all races gravitated there for employment. I think our school classes looked like the newly formed United Nations.
Sonny, Jim Fogg, and I became part of the Bremmer Park Lions, a neighborhood gang of sorts. Our domain, as we saw it, extended a half-mile in each direction. The Huntsman boys were leaders of the Lions and competition between Sonny and me was fierce. No matter how much I ached after wrestling or fighting my bigger brother, I never gave up. As a group, though, we joined forces against the Ross Park gang, most often in tackle football and sandlot baseball.
It was around this time that Sonny and I learned to put plywood in the backs of our pants. When our father came home from work, he would give each of us a hard kick in the pants “for the damn things you did today that I don’t know about.” It hurt, so we occasionally would pad our pants with a piece of plywood to absorb the impact. He never discovered this bit of creativity.
The Huntsman boys were not angels by any stretch of the imagination. Pranks were the Bremmer Park Lions’ main order of business. Sonny masterminded them, but it seemed I always paid the price when we were caught. I remember one of the Lions buying a frightful Halloween mask with a deformed face. Sonny decided we should add a beat-up overcoat and hat, go around knocking on doors after dark, and ask for handouts. It was such a hoot we repeated the prank the next night. One of the neighbors didn’t appreciate such nonsense and called the police. As soon as we saw the flashing red lights approaching, we split up and hightailed for cover. Fogg and I hid in a cornfield until things quieted down before making a break for it. Alas, we ran right into the waiting arms of Alabam Dawson, a Pocatello cop of considerable size and notoriety. He opened the door of his squad car and invited us in.
As we got older, the pranks became more aggressive. When I was fourteen and smitten by a sweet thing named Alice Johnson, we decided to attract her attention by throwing tomatoes at her house. Alice’s not-so-sweet mother came out on the porch with a shotgun, threatening to shoot if we didn’t clean up the mess. We did so with such civility and respect that, by the time we had finished, Alice’s mom thought us a great bunch of boys and laughed off the prank. Wishing us a good night, she went inside. As the door closed, tomatoes flew anew and we scattered. This time, Mrs. Johnson called the police and we were again apprehended.
My mother always stuck up for her sons with a commitment forged in the unwavering belief that we were perfect. She could not imagine her boys doing any of the things of which we were accused. No matter what the allegation, no matter how strong the evidence, her defense of us was consistent, her faith in us absolute. On the other hand, my disciplinarian dad, like his father before him, was a firm believer that punishment should be swift and commensurate with the offense. He had an explosive temper and an unreasonable streak, both of which were manifested frequently. I learned to be cautious in dealing with him.
One day, while in the neighborhood grocery store, I attempted to steal something. When Mrs. Edwards, the proprietor, was in the back of her store and I was sure she couldn’t see me, I slipped an ice cream sandwich into my pocket. When she came back up front, I mumbled something about going home and moved toward the door. “Don’t you think you had better pay for that ice cream sandwich in your pocket, Jon?” she inquired matter-of-factly. I froze. This is it, I thought, jail time. Sheepishly, I handed the purloined booty to the proprietor. She didn’t scold me or threaten to call the police, and I never again felt the urge to take something that wasn’t mine.
If Sonny or I wanted spending money, we had to earn it. My first paying job was selling and delivering the Pocatello newspaper door-to-door at the ripe old age of nine. I bought the daily papers for three cents a copy and sold them for a nickel. My father insisted I sell all my papers before coming home. Once, while doing my best to get them all sold, I wet my pants rather than take time to find a bathroom.
Just out of the fifth grade at Whittier Elementary, Sonny and I opened what we touted as the best lawn-mowing service in town. The following year, my father thought we were ready for real work and convinced the principal at Whittier that we could maintain the school grounds for the summer. The schoolyard was a block-long expanse of grass that had to be cut twice a week. Our hand-mower was too heavy for either of us to push individually, so we each took a side of the handle and shoved. It was painfully slow going. By the time we finished one cutting, it would be time to start another. We worked an eight-hour day, but it paid seventy-five dollars a month, an astonishing sum for two young boys in 1948. The job provided us with our first real spending money. Flush for the first time in our lives, we bought a second bicycle, clothes, and some sports equipment. With that job, however, came the clear but sad message: childhood was over. No more carefree summers. From then on, we were responsible for our clothing, medical, transportation, and entertainment expenses.
Under the combined influence of my mother and father, I grew up with a strong sense of caring, responsibility, and self-worth. My brother and I were contributing members of the household. We were putting in longer hours and accomplishing more than just about anyone we knew. Looking back on it, we learned a great deal from that experience. We managed to have fun while working hard and, in 1949, my fellow students elected me sixth grade class president. While the role at that age was not one of great impact on my classmates or the school, it turned out to be the first of several opportunities to participate in student government and it was rewarding to receive the vote of confidence.
My life, however, was about to lose its innocence. Up to now, I didn’t even know how poor the family was. I would soon find out. We would be moving again—this time to California. That was followed by a trek back to Idaho and then back to California. The moves were based on opportunities for my father, but they were also a fortuitous development for me. As a result, I met my future wife and received an opportunity to attend a prestigious Ivy League school with a paper baron picking up the tab—but not before nearly blowing it on both counts.
My destiny was starting to take shape, and rapidly.
2. Leaving Home
IN THE SPRING OF MY SEVENTH-GRADE YEAR, MY DAD REALIZED HIS dream of becoming a school superintendent would be limited without an advanced degree. He was accepted into Stanford University’s graduate program in education and, with a year’s leave of absence from the Pocatello School District, we were headed for California. It was June 1950, and the beginning of a nomadic existence for the Huntsman family.
My father somehow believed we could survive the eighteen months on his GI Bill allotment of $120 a month. He rented a unit of the married-student housing in Stanford Village, which in reality meant living in one of twenty World War II Quonset huts that had cardboard for interior walls—a few clicks downhill from our Thomas, Idaho two-room hovel with outdoor plumbing. For those unfamiliar with the Quonset hut, Webster’s defines it as “a semi-cylindrical metal shelter having end walls, usually serving as a barracks, storage shed, or the like.” Using one of these six-hundred-square-foot units as family living quarters presumably constituted the “or the like” part of the description. Most occupants were young married couples or very small families. Our family was the largest group in Stanford Village. Needless to say, we literally lived on top of one another.
It soon became obvious that $120 per month wasn’t going to cut it. Of necessity, my mother made it a practice to go to the meat market near closing time when she could buy stew scraps for ten cents a pound. Mom was skilled in making do with little, and sometimes the butcher would just give her leftover meat. On the occasions I went with her and witnessed what she went through to put food on the table for us, tears of sympathy and humiliation filled my eyes.
At school, the trappings of affluence among students from nearby upscale Menlo Park and Atherton brought home to Sonny and me just how poor we were. The disparity didn’t seem to matter to our peers, though, as I was elected president of my eighth-grade class. We didn’t have what others did, however, so Sonny and I concluded hard work would get us what we needed.
We found after-school jobs at Cook’s Seafood Restaurant in Menlo Park. Sonny was a waiter; I bussed tables and washed dishes. We earned seventy-five cents an hour plus tips and all the food we could consume. We ate next to nothing during the day but stuffed ourselves on the freebies at night. Our earnings helped pay for necessities our parents couldn’t afford. When a dentist announced I had nineteen cavities—which could have cost us the equivalent of my father’s monthly income—my restaurant earnings paid for a mouthful of fillings.
The year 1950 also was significant because I met Karen Haight at the Palo Alto Ward of the LDS Church. A shy girl, a year younger than me, Karen was the daughter of Ruby Olson and David B. Haight, the respected owner of a hardware store who would in a few years become mayor of Palo Alto. Later, in 1976, he was called to serve as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the governing board of the LDS Church. Meanwhile Ruby Olson Haight was a woman of remarkable grace, beauty, and charm, with far more outward strength and confidence than I saw in my own mother, who was diminished by a domineering, belittling husband. Ruby was an intriguing example of a different sort of womanhood. Little wonder Karen grew up self-assured and passionate about life.
I was terrified during this period of time because the Korean War began and I was all but certain that my dad would be called back to military service. Thank goodness, it wasn’t to be, and by the end of the summer of 1951, my father had his master’s degree and it was time to return to Idaho and the Pocatello School District. Karen thought she would never see me again.
Back in Idaho, Jim Fogg was delighted to see his best friend return. During my freshman year at Pocatello High, I decided to run for class president. I had to stay home the day of the election because I was ill. Fogg somehow engineered my victory as a compromise choice when the frontrunners found themselves in a stalemate. Serving as class president in 1951–52 prompted me to think about leadership and to develop a social philosophy for the first time. It also dawned on me that being class president was bigger than winning a popularity contest. It carried the opportunity—and the responsibility—to make a difference.
Sonny and I went to work at the Whitman Hotel in Pocatello on rotating shifts as combination bellboy/elevator operators. One of us worked from 3:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., the other from 11:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. We received twenty-five cents an hour plus tips on the swing shift and thirty-five cents an hour and tips on graveyard. After several grueling weeks, we approached the manager with a request that he shorten our hours so we could finish our schoolwork—either that, or we wanted an increase in pay. He refused both options. We resigned on the spot and left the building, but not before pulling the main light switch, leaving the hotel and surrounding businesses in darkness.
I did odd jobs for a while, such as picking potatoes for six cents per fifty-pound gunny sack until I got another job assembling wagons and tricycles at the Payless Drugstore. Christmas Eve, the store manager presented me with a box of cherry chocolates and the news that I was laid off. His cold, offhand manner taught me a lesson about how not to treat employees. As it turned out, losing that job was of little consequence because after Christmas my father decided to return to Stanford once again in order to work toward a doctorate degree. The Huntsman family packed our things into a rented trailer once again, said good-bye to friends, and traipsed back to Palo Alto, the Quonset hut, and Karen Haight.
In February 1952, Sonny and I enrolled in Menlo-Atherton High where the student body almost exclusively came from wealthy and upper-middle-class families. During high school, I was even more sensitive to the contrast between their sprawling homes and our “chicken coop.” I never invited friends over to visit. Neither were my two school shirts and two pairs of pants on par with the fashions of my peers, who never seemed to want for cash. I confess there were times when I told other kids my father was an associate professor at Stanford rather than admit that he was a student.
Those were hard years for the world—the Korean conflict, the hydrogen bomb, the Cold War—and, on a more provincial scale, the Huntsmans. At times, it looked as if we had only one purpose in life: to get Dad through school. I resented my father’s ambition. I could not understand the frustration that he often vented in explosive displays of temper on Mom, Sonny, and me. Dad was the one who brought us to that place; he had opted to work toward his doctorate. Why couldn’t he attempt to be easier to live with? My mother would try to convince us that our hardships were merely temporary, that the goal was lofty and worth the sacrifices. All I knew was that we were poor and everyone else wasn’t. The sting of poverty was humiliating and made a lasting impression.
Looking back more than a half century later, I can partially write off that segment of my life as a learning experience. My father’s obsession did set an example. He could have remained a rural schoolteacher, but he lifted himself up. He demonstrated how to set and attain goals, no matter how great the challenge. The experience also taught me there are mountains to climb and challenges to overcome. Show me someone who spent their teenage years in a Quonset hut and I will show you an overachiever. Having nothing gives one something to prove.
Other childhood images come to mind, mostly pleasant ones of Sonny and me, but it saddens me that my memories seldom feature our brother Clayton. Because he was ten years younger, I did not bond with him as I had with Sonny. Clayton’s childhood was quite different than ours. From the age of eight, he was the lone child in the household that, by then, offered a relatively stable middle-class existence, so he never experienced the insecurity of poverty. At different times later in life, Clayton became antibusiness, antiestablishment, and antireligion. Nevertheless, he is a good, thoughtful, decent person, and I respect him for finding his own way in life.
By mid-1952, my father had received his doctorate degree and an offer from the Los Altos School District to be assistant superintendent. (Years later, he would be named superintendent of the nearby Los Altos Mountain View Union District.) For the first time, my father’s annual salary exceeded $5,000. As a result, we were able to rent a small house in Palo Alto proper, a real home with a yard and an actual street address where I could invite friends without feeling ashamed.
Moving to the new residence meant transferring to Palo Alto High, our third high school in little more than a year. Sonny was a junior; I was a sophomore. Palo Alto High offered a terrific secondary education with its low student-teacher ratio, access to exciting clubs, student organizations, and traditional sports. I lettered in football and baseball as a sophomore, although my first love was basketball. I had to skip basketball my sophomore year because of a knee injury sustained in football. To make sure that didn’t happen again, I turned out only for basketball the next year.
Though the family may have been doing better financially, Sonny and I were still required to work. We were hired first as stockers at the Palo Alto J. C. Penney store, and quickly promoted to sales clerks. It wasn’t long before we were earning our best wage to date: $1.25 an hour, impressively higher than the 75-cents-an-hour minimum wage at the time. It didn’t hurt, either, that our work performances impressed store manager Merrill Vanderpool, who happened to chair the Palo Alto Board of Education. More advantageous from my perspective, Penney’s was located across the street from David Haight’s hardware store.
Karen made it no secret she was pleased I had returned to California, and we took advantage of the proximity of the two stores. Between my job and school activities, the only time we could be together, aside from heavily chaperoned church functions, was when she came into Penney’s to try on shoes. I made sure I was the one who waited on her, my heart skipping all the while. I deliberately brought out the wrong size footwear to prolong her stay. She favored red or navy 1950s-style flats but went along with the game and tried on whatever old-lady styles I would produce to allow us more time together.
We seldom saw each other outside of church events or at the store. I didn’t know it at the time, but she wrote our names in wet cement and referred to me as her “boyfriend.” I was fifteen before I got up the nerve to hold her hand at an LDS ward dance, and even then a chaperone told us to knock it off. It was another year before I again reached for her hand, and two more years before I kissed her. In the interest of full disclosure, I had been seeing another girl on and off for five years. Annie Lease was a gracious, gregarious, upbeat young woman from Pittsburgh whose father had been transferred to the West Coast by his company. She helped me learn many of the social skills that I would later find were second nature among the eastern prep school boys at Wharton. There were a couple of other girls, too, but I was shy and naïve, and still pretty young. And the decade of the fifties was a carefree age of quasi-innocence. Drugs, liquor, and sex were generally not part of the equation.
Where Karen was concerned, it was love at first sight. But it wasn’t until my junior year in college that I decided she would be The One. Compared to my family’s circumstances, Karen led a privileged life. I saw her as a bit out of my league. Both families took summer vacations: the Haights to Hawaii and the Huntsmans to Utah. Because of her family’s elevated financial position, I was in awe of her parents and a bit insecure around them. Karen had her reasons to be nervous, too. She was attracted to me, she says, because I was cute, positive, and especially kind to my mother, but she was afraid my father would never let me marry her. She was dyslexic and struggled for grades. She worried that, as assistant superintendent, he could pull her school records and discover what she viewed as her shortcoming. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had.
Karen was exuberant and beautiful, and we easily bonded. Her father became my advocate throughout the courtship. In the senior Haight’s eyes, a teenager who worked after school to help out the family was someone worth knowing. Moreover, Haight was brought up in Idaho and was determined that his only daughter would marry someone from a similar background.
During the summer, I worked full time at J. C. Penney, secured a second job as a plumber’s assistant, and began saving money for a car. I was a terrible plumber’s trainee. The first bathroom I installed in a nearby church had to be totally replaced. When a toilet flushed, all the water taps would turn on. There was no hot water, and the drainage from the sink terminated somewhere in the church chapel. Nevertheless, by my junior year, I was the proud owner of a 1947 Plymouth that cost three hundred hard-earned dollars. It was a rather humble vehicle, which wasn’t helped by my do-it-yourself paint job (it looked like it had been painted with a broom), but having a car gave me a sense of freedom previously unknown.
At the end of my junior year, I was elected as an assemblyman at California Boys State where we debated the news-oriented topics of the moment, such as the Supreme Court’s decision to integrate public schools and whether Senator Joseph McCarthy should be censured for his over-the-top hunt for communists. Just prior to my senior year, I was elected to student body president after running on a platform focused on giving everyone a fair chance to be involved and to receive the attention and recognition they deserved. My election campaign received considerable help from the senior class through Sonny’s efforts, while Karen recruited support from the sophomores.
Once elected, I was presented with numerous opportunities to put my promises into practice. For instance, a senior named Ron Chappel had been disfigured from plastic surgeries and had an artificial leg. He had suffered severe burns as a baby. He had no friends and usually sat alone in a corner of the cafeteria during lunch period. One day, I left the table where I had been talking with friends, walked over to his table, and sat down. We chatted and continued to do so for several days afterward. Before long, the student leadership table shifted from the center of the cafeteria to Ron’s corner. We included him in social events and group pranks, making him a card-carrying member of our crowd. It turned out to be a great year for him—and for us.
Even though I lacked top grades, my school activities and work habits apparently caught the eye of our principal, Dr. Ray Ruppel. I would have flunked typing class had the teacher not also been the assistant basketball coach. (And get this: I, the future petrochemical magnate, dropped Dr. Engelkay’s chemistry class after three days, believing I would never have a use for that science.) Nevertheless, the remaining grades were As and Bs and I felt good about applying for scholarships at Stanford and the state universities in California. But everything changed in the spring of 1955, when Principal Ruppel summoned me to his office—the resulting proposal would turn out to be the opportunity of my lifetime.
Harold Zellerbach, president and CEO of Crown Zellerbach Paper Corporation, then the second-largest paper company in the nation, had previously come to Palo Alto High School to ask an important question. Zellerbach, a 1917 graduate of Penn’s prestigious Wharton School (known then as the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce), had asked Ruppel a few days earlier why, upon graduation, his seniors attended Yale, Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford but not the University of Pennsylvania, the oldest university in America. Next to Zellerbach was Dr. Ray Saalbach, director of admissions for the University of Pennsylvania, who noted that Palo Alto was a prestigious high school and asked if there was a reason why UPenn—particularly Wharton—was not a destination school for Palo Alto students.
Ruppel responded that their interest in PAHS was gratifying and promised a greater focus on Pennsylvania, but he was curious. “Is there some significance to your timing?”
Zellerbach explained his family was prepared to offer to a qualifying Palo Alto senior a full scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and wanted the principal to recommend a student with academic strengths and an all-around performance that set him apart from other students. (At the time, only males were permitted to attend Wharton.)
I found out later Ruppel and David Haight were fellow Rotarians and, at the organization’s weekly luncheon the following day, Ruppel asked my future father-in-law if he knew of a deserving student. Indeed he did, said Haight. Apparently, Karen’s father’s opinion carried weight, because the next morning, when a teachers’ conference had preempted normal classes, I received a phone call from Ruppel at home. Hearing from the school principal so early on a non-school day was a little disconcerting, especially when all he said was, “Could you arrange to be in my office later this morning, please?”
Oh, brother, I thought, what have I done? Zellerbach and Saalbach got to the principal’s office before me, eager to learn who Ruppel would nominate for the scholarship. Ruppel told them he had a student in mind, one with satisfactory grades, good work ethic, and who was well liked and rounded. He is a bit different than most of the student body, Ruppel continued, in that he comes from one of the less affluent families in our area, but he has shown himself to be a leader and has demonstrated a concern for fellow students. Ruppel opened the door to his outer office where I waited and beckoned me to enter and sit down.