5 Things I learned from Jon M. Huntsman

Reflecting on the life of a giant in cancer research

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On my last day at Huntsman Cancer Foundation, August, 2016. I don’t remember much about that day, only that I cried a lot and I didn’t want to let go. As luck would have it, my path would lead back to cancer research.

For most of my adult life, I had the privilege to help carry out the vision of a man whose goal was to “eradicate cancer from the face of the earth.” This was not hyperbole, Jon M. Huntsman, Sr. has done more to advance cancer research than perhaps any human of his time. From being on hand to help declare the “War on Cancer” during the Nixon administration to the founding of the world-renowned Huntsman Cancer Institute with his family’s generous donations, he was cancer researchers’ fiercest ally. His personal lifetime giving to cancer was inspiring alone, but he was also not one to write a check and walk away. From the way he regularly visited infusion just to shake a patient’s hand or offer one of his signature hugs, to the way he lobbied for cancer research in Washington, he engaged in it, fought for it, and loved this goal like his life depended on it.

And it turns out, it did. Ours, too. If we are to live but one life, we’d better figure out why we are here. And this was the first lesson I took from him.

  1. It’s not work. It’s your life’s work.

As his mother died in his arms, Mr. Huntsman promised he’d do all he could to fund cancer research. Her untimely death set him on his mission of carrying out his life’s work. “Tragedy has a way of doing that. Listen to the voice inside intently in those times,” he said. Little did he know he himself would battle cancer four times. He was put on this earth to serve others and he did it in quiet and anonymous ways. In commencement speeches or Tuesday afternoon cookie and root beer float sessions, he often said,

God did not put you here to fail. He wants you to succeed.”

Thinking of work for work’s sake can be drudgery, but once you envision what people will say at your funeral, the mundane quickly becomes meaningful.

2. Be generous before you can afford it.

Mr. Huntsman’s generosity was legendary, but I believe his greatest giving was left without a trace. One can hear the now-public stories of him slipping checks under doors on his way to surgery, but before that were anonymous envelopes of cash siphoned off of meager wages to neighbors in need. He and his wife Karen gave before they had the means, regularly and sacrificially. “You will receive it back 1,000 times — no one million times over,” he’d say. I believe he only allowed others to put his name on buildings to inspire. He urged those who had any financial success to give money as they were making it.

3. Expand your tribe, but visit often with those “who knew you when.”

Mr. Huntsman’s circle was fiercely loyal, loving, and extended back decades. While working with him and the philanthropy of his beloved Fraternity, Sigma Chi, I saw a side of him that revealed the reality of his early philanthropic roots, but also his penchant for fun and ingenuity. When he would gather with these friends from the ’50s, stories would emerge about him arriving at Penn with one tie, which was, in his words, tacky. He wore it to every occasion until a Sigma Chi brother helped him get a proper one with a suit (“I was more JC Penney than Brooks Brothers,” he’d say). They also helped get him in touch with a jeweler with whom he worked out an arrangement to become the official engagement ring supplier for campus; his bride’s ring was the first deal. In the halls of Penn and within the walls of the Phi Phi Chapter, he channeled his love of humankind and service that his mother had instilled in him. At Sigma Chi, he found life-long friends (who would be his first supporters of Huntsman Cancer Institute), a place to study and socialize, and a finesse for leading and finding the people who could make change happen. He chatted with his Sigma Chi brothers regularly and spoke to the newest generation as often as possible. A recipient of a life-altering scholarship to Penn himself, he invested in leadership opportunities and financed scholarships for those who came after him.

After all, when he tried to pay the family of his own scholarship back, they just said, “do all the good you can.”

Look at the return on that investment.

4. Be a gentleman (or lady).

Mr. Huntsman navigated this world with signature style. He always looked polished and chose his words thoughtfully. He could be casual, but never callous, formal, but always friendly. He said what he meant. He looked you in the eye. His word was his bond. He held doors, tipped well, acknowledged unsung heroes. After events, we’d observe him walking around to thank those folding up the chairs and loading them out. He showed up for check presentations and meetings with a smile when he was not feeling well because he knew people were counting on him (with a tie that matched the occasion). His Sigma Chi roots also had him using the term “sweetheart” as the highest honor for women, a word he reserved for those he respected most. He felt women should be leaders both at home and in the workplace. When he felt this generation was losing some of these values, he instituted a club for “good guys.” It was geared toward the youngest and was all about manners and kindness, strength as softness when the world tried to make you hard.

5. Remove obstacles to authentic connections.

Mr. Huntsman was notoriously present — he preferred one-on-one meetings to memos and emails — “so much gets lost in arm’s length communication,” he’d say, “say it and don’t waste time.” When was the last time you refreshingly checked off your to do list when you just went and met in person? He understood this innately. He conducted gatherings mostly face to face, couch facing couch. There was often no table separating the parties. He rarely had notes. He just talked and found common ground. He always asked about family and made time for pleasantries. There were a lot of laughs. There were most always hugs.

After his passing Friday, many will cherish correspondence he sent — on his signature quarter page stationery — most often hand-written. If a note was typed, he’d cross out formal titles and add loving personalizations in the margins. He was fastidious with thank you notes and effusive with praise. You knew to only bring him your best work, however; he was not much for iterations. He was as meticulous with the written word as he was a verbal communicator. He was a prolific writer and his books allow us to hear his voice when we miss him most.

In Mr. Huntsman’s honor, let’s write a letter this week. Let’s give away a little more money than we had planned. Let’s make ourselves feel it. If we don’t remember a donation, it probably didn’t mean that much to us.

And let us recall and thank our mentors. I know I will never forget Mr. Jon Huntsman and I am grateful for the lessons he left for us.

Mr. Huntsman, “no man is an island,” was a phrase you lived out loud, connecting everyone to each other, an entire generation to a battlecry, and each of us to our potential. Thank you, for filling up this world with so much goodness that it is strange and quiet without you. Thank you for the humor, the pure joy, and the path to follow.

As the Sigma Chi members would say, All Honor To His Name.

Lori Kun is the Head of Social Impact at Qualtrics, which runs 5 For The Fight, asking everyone to give $5 to cancer research, an initiative inspired in part by Jon Huntsman’s directive to “dream big dreams.” 5forthefight.org

Originally published at siliconslopes.com

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