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J.R. Simplot

J.R. Simplot died Sunday morning at his condominium in downtown Boise. The Idaho agribusinessman, who became one of the richest men in America leading his family-owned company, was 99. His wife, arts philanthropist Esther Simplot, was at his side.

Simplot's friend of more than 50 years, former state Sen. Dean Summers, told the Statesman that Simplot had been fighting pneumonia in recent days, but had not been hospitalized. Summers said Simplot passed peacefully and quickly. "It was a blessing because he died without suffering."

John Richard Simplot was one of the last of the old-time entrepreneurs, a onetime farmboy who never went to high school but built a personal fortune Forbes Magazine estimated at $2.6 billion in 2006. The company he began with the flip of a coin to acquire a $252 potato sorter grew into one of the largest agribusiness conglomerates in the world.

He was agricultural Idaho's only billionaire and a high-tech tycoon of the New West. Simplot's wealth allowed him to bankroll the start-up of Micron Technology Inc. He and other principals helped chart the future of what is now the state's largest employer at board meetings held in a Boise pancake house.

"His legacy is his vision," said Gov. Butch Otter, Simplot's former son-in-law. "Compared with him, the rest of the world was wearing bifocals."

His credo: work hard, hire good people and trust them to work hard.

Simplot claimed to own more deeded land than any other man in America. He owned the nation's largest cattle ranch in Oregon and had holdings from China to Chile. But nowhere was his influence more dominant than in Idaho, where he funded scores of business, educational and charitable enterprises. He donated millions to the state's colleges and universities and funded causes from Boise's Basque Museum to the Pocatello Public Library. His business interests were ubiquitous, covering the spectrum from Micron and the Idaho Steelheads to obscure but potentially profitable inventors and tinkerers.

Employees generations younger than Simplot joked that he would outlive them all. He was rarely if ever sick. He had an artificial knee and hip and meant it when he vowed that as long as he had money and the doctors had spare parts, he'd be their best customer. He gave up skiing at 89 and was miffed when his doctors wouldn't let him attend a wedding in McCall a few days after coronary bypass surgery at 90.

He bought his first Wave Runner at 94.

"He rode it around Payette Lake and then had it moved to Grand View to ride on the Snake River after the lake had frozen," John Otter said. "He wanted to take his shotgun along so he could drive with one hand and shoot geese with the other."

That was the winter he turned 95.

He spent his 98th birthday in a Phoenix hospital after suffering a serious head injury in a fall, but surprised nearly everyone by recovering from the resulting surgery, successfuly completing his rehabilitation and returning home. He attributed his extraordinary health and longevity in part to abstinence from tobacco and alcohol. Taught a "lesson in booze" early in life by a hard-drinking business associate, he was reluctant to hire anyone who drank or smoked, gave $200 to any employee who quit smoking and paid a former minister to travel the state in a bus, displaying black lungs while lecturing to high school students on the evils of tobacco.

He couldn't type or operate a computer, but he carried a Micron computer chip in his pocket.

A hard-nosed pragmatist, he had little use for religion and called education "the only charity that I really support. I guess I'm a facts man."

Asked how he wanted to be remembered, his response was vintage Simplot:

"Oh, hell, I don't care what they say. But I think I've made enough marks around here that somebody will say, 'Well, that guy was pretty smart. He hung on.'"

He did, for nearly a century - establishing himself as the state's leading industrialist and arguably its most colorful character.

Here's what the family says in an obituary appearing in Wednesday's Idaho Statesman:

With the Idaho Statesman’s excellent coverage of J.R. Simplot’s life, there is little that an obituary can add. Again, the family is grateful and honored by the outpouring of love and condolences.

J.R. lived a life that was “almost a dream”. He went from a toddler in Declo to a penthouse in Boise. He lived a long life. He found fame and fortune. In spite of it all, he was proudest of being a farmer from Idaho.

In retrospect, a theme of his life was love: love of his wife, his family, his company, the people who worked with him, for Idaho, and his utmost respect for his Country and its Flag. Above all, he loved life and did not want to leave.

He was a dreamer and a man of great passion. As the dream that was his life comes to a close, it is you who can keep his legacy alive. As he would say, “It is a ‘root hog’ or die world, so get out, hustle and hold on”.

A memorial service will held at the Quest Arena at 2 p.m. Sunday. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy, 516 S. 9th St., Boise, ID 83702; Ronald McDonald House Charities, 101 Warm Springs Ave., Boise, ID 83712, your local YMCA, or the charity of your choice.

Published in Idaho Statesman from May 25 to June 2, 2008
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