Jon Huntsman Sr., the son of a music teacher in the heart of the Idaho potato country who rose to become a billionaire industrialist and philanthropist in Utah and the father of that state’s governor, died on Friday at his home in Salt Lake City. He was 80.
Gary Chapman, a spokesman for the Huntsman Corporation, the specialty chemical company where Mr. Huntsman was executive chairman, confirmed the death but declined to give the cause. He had been ill for an extended period of time.
In early 1970s, Mr. Huntsman built a packaging company that created many of the first plastic plates, bowls and fast-food containers, including the plastic “clamshell” that held McDonald’s Big Mac. After selling the company, he went on to found the Huntsman Corporation, an $8 billion multinational operation that produces chemicals used in everything from clothing to automobiles.
He also served in the Nixon administration and in 1988 ran unsuccessfully for governor in Utah.
But he became known as much for his philanthropy as his business and political ambitions. In 1992, after both of his parents died of cancer and he, too, battled the disease, he created the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah with a $10 million grant, and in the years since, he and his family donated more than $1.4 billion to cancer research.
“He was a great entrepreneur and a real humanitarian,” said Patrick Byrne, the chief executive and founder of Overstock.com, the online retailer based in Salt Lake City, and a three-time cancer survivor. “He made a ton of money and he gave it away while he was alive.”
Jon Meade Huntsman was born in 1937 in Blackfoot, Idaho. In an interview with The New York Times in 1994, he remembered hearing stories about two of his great-great-grandfathers, who crossed the mountains with Brigham Young on wagon trains in the 1840s and became businessmen in Utah. He would eventually make the same trip and join the highest echelons of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but he took a more circuitous route.
After moving to Palo Alto, Calif., where, in junior high school, he met his future wife, Karen Haight, Mr. Huntsman won a scholarship from the Crown Zellerbach paper company that sent him to the University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton School. But his future was in egg cartons, not paper.
He joined an egg distribution company run by his wife’s uncle, and, as he once told The Times, he noticed that the cardboard cartons were prone to leaks. So, he helped development a plastic carton. In 1965, the company was purchased by Dow Chemical.
Mr. Huntsman’s ambitions were varied.
He spent time repackaging and selling music recordings on television under titles like “Greatest Hits of Rock & Roll.” And in 1970, he joined the Nixon administration, eventually serving as special assistant and staff secretary to the president. But by then, he had already launched the Huntsman Container Corporation, which created the Big Mac clamshell in 1974.
In 1982, he founded the Huntsman Chemical Corporation in Salt Lake City. Then, after acquiring the worldwide operations of the Texaco Chemical Company, the company evolved into the Huntsman Corporation.
Mr. Huntsman is survived by his wife, Karen, and eight children, 56 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. His daughter Kathleen died in 2010.
His son Jon Huntsman Jr. was Utah’s governor from 2005 to 2009, ran for president in 2012 with financial backing from the elder Huntsman, and is now the United States ambassador to Russia. In 2016, another son, Paul, purchased The Salt Lake Tribune, Utah’s largest daily paper, and named his father chairman emeritus.
In an interview in 2014, The Tribune reported on Friday, Mr. Huntsman said that he wanted his family to follow his lead.
“I would hope that our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren would feel equally comfortable in public office or philanthropy,” he said.
Fred Esplin, vice president for advancement at the University of Utah, who had known the elder Mr. Huntsman since the 1970s, said that Mr. Huntsman left “quite the legacy.”
“It is not the Kennedys,” he said. “But it is a dynasty.”