A Billionaire With Distinct Ideas of Philanthropy, and Presidential Politics
By KIRK JOHNSON
SALT LAKE CITY — Jon M. Huntsman Sr. — billionaire industrialist, father of a presidential hopeful, four-time cancer survivor — has no patience for the Scrooges of the world. Even the philanthropist club of billionaires started by Mr. Huntsman’s friend Warren E. Buffett that is trying to enlist the world’s richest to give away half their wealth seems tight-fisted to him.
Times Topic: Jon Huntsman Jr.
Related in Opinion
Bruni: Nice Guy Finishing Last (October 16, 2011)
“I suggested 80 percent,” he said. “A tremendous number of wealthy people haven’t given much of anything.”
While protesters from the Occupy Wall Street movement camp out across America, excoriating what they see as the greed of the affluent, and Democrats push the idea of a surtax on millionaires, a voice of soft-spoken but resolute insistence about the obligation to share can be heard here in the West.
Mr. Huntsman, the son of a rural school teacher, built the multinational Huntsman Corporation from scratch starting in the 1970s, a chemical company with most of its operations now overseas. He sympathizes with the Wall Street protesters. The political system, he agreed, is broken. Ethics have foundered.
But he argues that the rich, if they could be induced to greater generosity — and not simply be more stiffly taxed — could go a long way toward fixing things.
And while other billionaires like Mr. Buffett and Bill Gates might be stalking the globe battling huge problems like malaria or AIDS or tainted drinking water, Mr. Huntsman, 74, is focused closer to home, trying to build the world’s pre-eminent cancer research and treatment center here in Utah’s capital.
His life and family experience — his father and mother and stepmother killed by cancer and a personal journey through prostate, oral and two bouts of skin cancer — shape his vision, he said. Since the 1990s, he has focused the bulk of his philanthropy on fighting the disease, with a huge research and treatment complex up and running at the University of Utah here and a major expansion set to open this month. Of the world’s 1,200 or so billionaires, Mr. Huntsman is one of only 19, according to the wealth-watch monitors at Forbes Magazine, who have given away more than $1 billion.
“We’ll just keep opening centers until we’re the Mayo Clinic of cancer,” he said in a rare interview previewing the new wing.
Mr. Huntsman, a longtime Republican stalwart, had plenty to say, in the wide-ranging interview, about politics and the field of presidential candidates, notably Mitt Romney. Republican primary voters, Mr. Huntsman said, are ignoring the best and most qualified candidate, namely his son, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor.
Mr. Romney, who led the 2002 Winter Olympics here, is hugely popular in Republican-dominated Utah, as is Mr. Huntsman Jr. Mr. Huntsman Sr. was a national finance co-chairman for the Romney campaign in 2008, but those days, he said, are over.
“I’ve worked for three different Romneys,” he said. One time Mr. Romney was a liberal, in running for the Senate in 1994 in Massachusetts against Edward M. Kennedy, Mr. Huntsman said, the next time he was a moderate in running for governor in 2002, and now he is a conservative in seeking the presidency.
“If you need to win that badly,” he said, “I guess you just kind of do what you have to do get a vote.”
Mr. Huntsman’s generosity is based not on tax deductions, but on his ferocious desire for obtaining results. More than 200 Ph.D. scientists are already at work at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, many of them concentrating on the question of nurture vs. nature — environment or genetic predisposition — that has confounded the best minds of science since the days of Crick and Salk.
The new treatment wing will also open with specific touches that Mr. Huntsman insisted on. His thinking: beautiful surroundings can provide a powerful distraction from one’s miseries.
The infusion room, for example, where patients will receive chemotherapy, looks more like a throwback to some “Mad Men” vision of 1960s air travel than a clinic. Dominated by cherry and maple woods and Italian marble, the room features reclining chairs that face floor-to-ceiling views of the Salt Lake Valley.
“When one has an opportunity to have their mind focused on something other than the possibility of death or fear, it changes the anatomy of the individual, changes the psychology and the emotions and feelings,” Mr. Huntsman said. “We want them to feel, the minute they walk in, that they’re walking into the Ritz-Carlton.”
The cancer research is intimately connected to Utah’s distinctive population and history, dating to the 1840s settlement by Mormon pioneer families. The Utah Population Database, a centerpiece of the genetics work, is built upon a deep sampling of some of those families, which have traditionally been huge and sprawling — thus providing a cancer researcher’s holy grail of depth across generations.
The database has already led scientists here to discover genes linked to inherited forms of melanoma, breast and colon cancer, as well as ovarian cancer and some head and neck cancers that appear to have hereditary patterns.
The Huntsman Cancer Institute, with its emphasis on genealogy, in turn ties directly into Mormon culture, which emphasizes family history and which Mr. Huntsman has embodied for years as a senior lay leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“What kind of cancer are you fighting?” Mr. Huntsman asked over and over as he visited with patients on a recent afternoon.
Dave Kasteler, 44, looked up from a wheelchair, pale and drenched with sweat. His colon cancer, he said quietly, had spread to the spine and liver.
“It’s the kiss of death,” Mr. Kasteler said.
“No, it’s not,” Mr. Huntsman said. “Not here.”
Mr. Huntsman said his charitable work, and perhaps the influence of his son — regarded as a moderate in Utah in advocating civil unions for gays and reform of the state’s strict liquor laws as governor — had shifted his own conservative views toward the center over the years. Among his best friends, he said, are Glenn Beck, the conservative commentator, and Michael Moore, the left-wing polemicist filmmaker.
“All men and women need a roof over their heads, and need to be fed and have proper health care,” he said. “I don’t know that I believed that, or even understood that, in the early days.”
Copyright 2011 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Politics, of Sunday, October 16, 2011.