SALT LAKE CITY — Narine Sarkissian remembers when the earthquake "that pretty much leveled a quarter of the country" hit Armenia.
It was December 1988, and the earthquake, measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale, flattened buildings constructed of gravel, sand and water in northwestern Armenia. An estimated 25,000 people died.
Jon M. Huntsman Sr. was among those who stepped in to help the struggling country, and his assistance continued over the years. Sarkissian, a native Armenian, credits Huntsman and his company for saving the country.
“If it wasn’t for that help, I doubt it if Armenia would have survived," she said.
December marks 25 years since the earthquake hit. Soon after, Huntsman's charitable work began in the country.
Huntsman is the founder of Huntsman Container Corporation that made its mark with the invention of Stryofoam egg and the McDonald's clamshell containers. He is also the father of Jon Huntsman, former governor of Utah, former U.S. ambassador to China and 2012 Republican Party presidential hopeful.
At age 75, the billionaire has left his mark on the business world with the global company Huntsman Corporation, now headed by his son Peter. He also donated a reported $1.3 billion in his lifetime and $76.8 million in 2012, moving him into the No. 22 spot on Forbes magazine's December list of 50 Philanthropists Who Have Given Away the Most Money.
“When you talk about Jon Huntsman and generosity, where does it end?” said Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Because Huntsman already had a company in Moscow, it was easy for him to help the Armenians when the quake hit in 1988.
He and his family visited the country after the earthquake and were shocked by the amount of destruction. Amid the rubble, Huntsman said he found resilient people who were doing what they could to move forward.
“From the ruins of devastation, they began to rebuild. It captured my heart to where I said, ‘I have to help these people. I have to be part of it,’” Huntsman said.
He originally planned to be involved in the country for only two years but soon realized he would be involved more extensively.
Members of his family have made a combined 46 trips to Armenia over the past 25 years.
One of Huntsman's first orders of business was to construct a pre-stressed concrete plant. This not only created jobs for the Armenians, but also provided materials with which the country could build buildings more resistant to earthquakes.
“These businesses, this business in particular in Armenia, was built to bless the lives of the people, and so it had a different bottom line, if you will, than a business that would be built just to make money,” said Elder Ronald A. Rasband, former president of Huntsman Chemical and current senior president of the Presidency of the Seventy for the LDS Church.
Over the years, Huntsman and his company built apartment complexes, a tile roofing plant and a school for the Armenian people.
The Huntsmans have given more than $53 million to the country through their humanitarian service.
As a man who values Christianity, Huntsman was impressed by the country that claims to be the oldest Christian country in the world.
“I think there was a bonding that occurred between the Huntsman family and the Armenian people and that bonding is centered in Christ,” Elder Ballard said.
The people of the country have awarded him with two medals of honor and granted him citizenship.
Huntsman's humanitarian work in the country could not have thrived had it not been for the efforts of others.
First, the Huntsman employees who came to the country as missionary couples and split their time between working and proselytizing, according to Elder Rasband.
Others who assisted in the effort included his family, specifically sons Peter and David; Armand Hammer, then the chairman and CEO of Occidental Petroleum Corporation of Los Angeles; and David Horne, general manager of the Huntsman family's Armenian efforts until he died in 1996 in Armenia as a result of a propane explosion.
There is "no question" in Elder Ballard's mind that the work of these men led to the eventual recognition of the LDS Church in Armenia in 1994.
Perhaps it is Huntsman's wide-ranging influence that prompted Elder Ballard to call him "a renaissance man."
"Don’t have very many of those that pass by in a lifetime,” he said.
Huntsman said he grew up in a household that was poor and, for a few years, below the poverty level.
“I never forget those times, and they leave certain scars in your memory bank and in your heart that you don’t want others to replicate.”
This is one reason why he feels the need to help the less fortunate, he said. He keeps a copy of Andrew Carnegie's "Gospel of Wealth" at his desk as a reminder to live modestly and act as a trustee for the less-fortunate.
This is something Elder Rasband witnessed firsthand.
“That’s the environment, the culture, that Jon Huntsman built, is that part of the reason we’re in business to make money is to help improve lives for other people. And I saw that just time and time and time and time again,” Elder Rasband said.
How he selects charities
A brass Remington bust stands on a table in the center of Huntsman's office. The piece, called "Coming Through the Rye," is barely noticed. It is mostly obscured by his collection of dozens of assorted Beanie Babies. He will eventually donate the batch to Primary Children's Hospital, he said.
With wealth estimated at $1 billion and a reputation for helping those in need, Huntsman's methods for selecting charitable causes surprisingly seems less than scientific.
“Whatever speaks to his heart, he supports it financially, and, for my father, it’s very personal," son David Huntsman, president of Huntsman Foundation and of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, said. "It’s not about buildings, it’s not about numbers, it’s not about recognition. I think he genuinely has the ability to feel empathy and compassion for others and that speaks to his heart, and I think that drives his decision-making when it comes to supporting people in need.”
The senior Huntsman said that he and his family have tried to give to causes they "felt were the most meritorious."
That means donating more money to fewer causes where he can affect more people, his son said.
“When my father makes a commitment, he likes to make it significant and he likes to do it over a long period of time. He likes to make sure that that gift, you know, has maximum impact,” David Huntsman said.
Cancer has been a major focus of Jon Huntsman's giving. Both his parents died from the disease that he has also contracted four times. In November, he announced the construction of a $100 million addition to the Huntsman Cancer Institute headquarters in partnership with the LDS Church, Intermountain Healthcare and the state of Utah.
“He has the vision that he’s going to find answers to solve cancer. He’s relentless. He just keeps going at it,” Elder Ballard said.
Huntsman also donates to the YWCA in Salt Lake City, with a domestic violence residence and apartment complex named after his mother, Kathleen Robinson Huntsman.
The Huntsman Foundation currently sponsors college education at Utah State University for the 13 top scholars in Armenia each year, at a total annual cost of $1 million per year. The first batch of students will matriculate in April. Huntsman funds the students with the expectation that they will return to Armenia once they finish their education.
"I want them to go back and rebuild their homeland," Huntsman said.
St. Vincent De Paul Soup Kitchen receives donations from him as well, in addition to countless other anonymous acts of service, friends say.
“The amount of good that he has done that has been done quietly that has not carried his name or not been public, nobody knows. I think I know enough to say to you that it is very significant,” Elder Ballard said.
Jon Huntsman considers these charitable investments to be important enough to borrow millions of dollars from banks in the past in order to honor his charitable obligations.
“It’s a different type of investment. It’s not one where you can measure a return in terms of a financial return. You measure your return in human impact,” David Huntsman said.
Businesses need to "draw a line very carefully" as to whether they are in the game to make a profit or to be a charitable organization, Huntsman said, drawing an invisible line on the carpet with his cane as he spoke.
"If people are going to give, they're going to give. And it doesn't matter if you give a dollar or five dollars or a hundred dollars or a million dollars; it's all according to your ability," Jon Huntsman said.
His charitable endeavors are possible because he has been able to build a business empire large enough to sustain his giving, according to Elder Ballard.
“He’s a very tough businessman. He’s had to be -- in order to build that kind of an enterprise. Honest, fair, but tough. But down deep, very tender when it comes to somebody who is suffering or who he feels like he could help.”
Jon Hunstman compares his desire to give to an addiction.
"It’s actually a high. It’s actually like a narcotic in the sense that you can do something for others that they can’t do for themselves. It really is a form of addiction that you know, is a really thoughtful, positive form,” Jon Huntsman said.
This "addiction" is one things that keeps Huntsman going.
"I think that drive will motivate him every day that he's alive," David Huntsman said.
The renaissance man now walks more slowly, assisted by a cane and burdened by polymyalgia rheumatica, a disease described by the Mayo Clinic as causing muscle aches and rigidity throughout the body.
Jon Huntsman is part of Warren Buffet's group of the billionaires who pledge to give at least 50 percent of their income to charity.
However, Huntsman thinks billionaires should give 80 percent of their income to charity before they die.
"I've always thought that people who left a great deal of money in their will never enjoyed the great honor and privilege and heart-rendering feeling of giving to others during their lifetime, because they were too selfish to give to others while they were alive, so they made sure they were dead and couldn't use it anymore," he said.
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