When Jon M. Huntsman went away to school at the University of Pennsylvania for the first time, he wore a polyester glow-in-the-dark suit.
He said the silver suit was advertised as a suit that would "glow in the dark so people could see you." It cost him $29.95, and it was accented by a bright red tie with a big yellow sun on it. His father bought him the tie for $1.
"I went back there, and I couldn't figure out why folks were always so positive and smiling and happy when they were around me," he said, laughing to himself. "I realized they weren't laughing with me, they were laughing at me."
Huntsman with school children in Armenia.
It's easy to get the impression around Huntsman that he has not forgotten that there was a time in his life where just buying a suit and tie was a financial challenge. He hasn't forgotten the time when his family shared a Quonset hut with eight other families. He has worked as a dishwasher, waiter and custodian. When he went to college, the suit he wore was the best he could afford.
A lot has changed since then. When interviewed recently in his large office that overlooks Salt Lake City, Huntsman did not come across as a wealthy man, but instead, as a man who has wealth. In fact, to hear him describe it, one might get the feeling he's just a steward over money that will all eventually go to worthy causes.
One might expect that someone who has proven so successful in business would become really engaged when talking about making money. In the interview, however, Huntsman was most passionate when he was talking about giving away money.
He said he recently spoke to a gathering that included 130 CEOs. He told them about King Tut and the wealth he accumulated. While there were stacks of gold by his side, it was not doing him any good, Huntsman said.
"The moral of that story, folks, is that you need to redistribute this in your lifetime because you can't take it with you," Huntsman said he told the CEOs. "You turn into bones."
He said many people don't realize the great reward that comes from giving.
"You've got to change your mindset to realize you just can't be in a position where you've spent your entire life making money and then you don't get to enjoy the remarkable inward pleasure of having people benefit from it," he said.
Huntsman explained that giving money away can actually be more difficult than earning it. He said that in the 1970s the family realized it was contributing to more than 100 causes. Sometimes his foundation gets thousands of letters a week from people or organizations requesting help.
"You'd like to help everyone," Huntsman said. "I've come to the conclusion that there are so many worthwhile and meaningful needs to be met and worthy causes to which individuals can contribute that it is very difficult to say this one is right and this one isn't right -- they are all right. They are all good for somebody. They are all helpful to mankind, so you have to be selective within a very focused group of charitable causes that are all worthwhile."
He said his family has decided its major donations will be related to health care or higher education. Focusing their giving, however, does not mean they are limiting it in any way.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently released a list of the nation's top givers in 2007. It said that last year Huntsman donated $750 million, which earned him the number two spot on the list. His lifetime humanitarian giving, including contributions to the homeless, the ill and the underprivileged, exceeds $1.2 billion and has assisted thousands, both domestically and internationally.
Armstong signs autographs. Recently, cycling champion and cancer survivor, Lance Armstrong, toured the Huntsman Cancer Institute with Jon Huntsman.
The Huntsmans have contributed or raised more than $350 million for the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Huntsman previously funded USU's Huntsman Environmental Research Center and the David B. Haight Alumni Center. His collective gifts to colleges and universities alone exceed $300 million.
In 2007, Huntsman donated about $1 million to fund four-year scholarships for students from Armenia to attend USU. Huntsman's relationship with the Armenian people began after a devastating earthquake in 1988 left thousands homeless. Over the next 18 years, he contributed more than $50 million to the Armenian people. He helped fund the production of reconstruction materials, the construction of a K-12 school and a residential apartment complex in the village of Gyumri.
Huntsman said people often give him all the credit for the donations, not understanding that the family decides about contributions together.
"No man is an island and no man stands alone," he said. "I've got my wife, Karen. I've got some remarkable family members, children and grandchildren who all participate in the giving as a team. I think that's probably the one thing that is left out of most stories. It isn't a one-person gift, it is a family gift. And this gift (to USU) is from our family. I feel like all I am is a spokesperson for a family that truly has been blessed."
There seems to be no shortage of people who feel good about the principle of the wealthy sharing their money. Huntsman does not let the rest of us off the hook so easily. When he was making just $350 a month, he shared $50 of his salary with a neighbor in need. Even now he's found that small gifts can make a difference. He told a story of tipping a parking lot attendant $100 and later learning that he was a University of Utah student who was close to dropping out of school. That money kept the student afloat, and he stayed in school and graduated.
"Any family can cough up $10 or a hundred bucks," he said. "It doesn't take a lot of money to do that. There are just so many ways to develop a sense of joy and a love of life."
And just in case there is anyone who thinks Huntsman alone will offer every financial resource the Huntsman School will require to go to a new level, he made it clear that this can only be done if alumni and friends of the school are willing to contribute too.
Everyone needs to get the vision of what the school can become and work to see it realized, he said.
"The sky's the limit when we have that kind of cooperation."
Huntsman Cancer Institute
A Legacy of Generosity
Mr. Huntsman and his wife, Karen, founded the Huntsman Cancer Institute in 1995 to accelerate the work of curing cancer through human genetics. The institute is now one of America's major cancer research centers dedicated to finding a cure for cancer, as well as a state of the art clinic and treatment center for cancer patients.