You might call this column my personal version of the Book of Mormon, a tale with two heroes, like the musical satire of that name making the rounds of theaters across the country. But this is the story of two real-life heroes whose separate impacts on society, driven in large part by their Mormon faith, should make them each the subject for their own book or movie.
And both have left an impact on me. One, Gary Neeleman, is a lifelong friend who received unique recognition last week in his beloved Brazil for his life of focus on that nation and its citizens.
|Jon Huntsman Sr. and Karen
|The other, Jon Huntsman Sr., whom I have never met but who has touched me for more than a decade, has again this year drawn me to the gathering of senior athletes that was his vision
29 years ago when he began
the World Senior Games as the globe's most impressive annual gathering of senior athletes. It will be my third trip to St. George, UT, to compete in the 100 meters.
|Gary and Rose Neeleman
|I have previously written about both Neeleman and Huntsman, both longtime residents of Salt Lake City, who know each other, with Neeleman actually a close friend of Huntsman's son, Jon, who was Utah governor and for a brief time a GOP presidental hopeful.
So this column is somewhat a revisting of people long-time readers have met before. But I never apologize for repeat sharing of special people who have done special things.
Both men made major contributions to society, Neeleman to inter-American relations and Huntsman to medical science.
It was as a result of his experience covering the 1963 Pan American Games and watching U.S. athletes play the role of "ugly Americans" in their treatment of Latin American teams they defeated, that he promised himself to someday do something about that. So when UPI sent him back home, he worked with Utah's coaches to create a college all-stars post-season tour of Latin America.
That tour, with Neeleman acting as scheduler, accommodations arranger and bag-boy for the basketball stars who relished the chance to participate, became an NCAA post-season fixture and Neeleman became a regular luncheon speaker at the NCAA tournament for years.
And for Huntsman, it was after his surgery for prostate cancer almost 20 years ago that prompted him to establish a world-class cancer research and treatment center, a dream realized with the Huntsman Cancer Institute and Hospital in Salt Lake City.
The Huntsman family continues to serve as principal benefactors and fundraisers for the Huntsman Cancer Institute with what he describes as "the ultimate goal" of eradicating the most challenging forms of cancer.
So now to their roles in this column. First regarding Neeleman, who was honored last week at the main hall of the City of Sao Paulo as the fourth recipient of the Sao Paulo Citizen award, following the Pope, the Dalai Lahma and the founder of the Mormon Church in Brazil as the only other recipients of the honor.
Neeleman's wife, Rose, and sons, David and Mark and a total of 14 family members including wives, grandkids and great grandkids were among those on hand for the ceremony. Neeleman recalled stories of his 61-year relationship with Brazil, more like a love affair with a nation and its people, beginning in 1954 when he arrived as a 20-year-old Mormon missionary.
It resumed in the early '60s when he brought his then new bride, Rose, with him as he arrived to be Brazil's manager for United Press International and has continued since then, including his three books that chronicle previously little-known aspects of the relations between what he refers to as "the two giants of the western hemisphere."
Three of his seven children were born in Brazil, including David, founder of Jet Blue now the founder and CEO of Azul, Brazil's second largest and fastest growing airline. Neeleman told the assembly that all of his children, 35 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren "were either born here, or are Brazilians at heart and are all proud to have Brazilian passports."
Gary and Rose travel to Brazil about three times a year and when they're not traveling on personal or client business, or traveling to the Brazilian back country as part of their research for his books, he's doing Brazil's business as honorary counsel in Salt Lake City.
My friendship with Neeleman, 81, extends back more than 40 years, beginning with our more than a decade as executives at UPI. And my children still recall his dramatic reading of "Horton the Elephant" one evening years ago as they were tucking into bed.
Now to Huntsman, 78, about whom I will be having good thoughts next week and would love to meet, when he and Karen will be on hand for the opening of the two-week gathering where nearly 10,000 seniors will compete in everything from track and field to badminton, pickleball, lawn bowling, volleyball, square dancing and even bridge. Some of the participants are in their 90s.
Huntsman's vision back in 1987 was that an event called the World Senior Games, even if held in a then-remote corner of Southwest Utah, would eventually draw thousands of what some might dismiss as "the elderly" who come for the chance for recreation and to compete with their peers.
While the Huntsmans' close ties to the games remain, he turned over the CEO role a few years ago to Kyle Case, whose career involvement with the Senior Games extends back to when he served as an intern while a student at Southern Utah University.
I've been drawn to the games because of the "world" name since I first heard of them in 2003 and made up my mind to compete in the 100 and 200 meters in my age group once I learned that they weren't really games that required world-class talent. That means some competitors really were world class while others like me, who weren't, could still compete, and that's always been the magic draw.
In that 2003 event, as a 63 year old competing in the 60-64 age group, I managed to finish sixth in both the 100 and 200 out of fields of 24 in each event. But the reality was that those at the front of the pack in both events were, in fact, world class and thus it was satisfying just to be in the same race in which I could see them in the distance.
I returned in 2011 to prove to myself I could come back from the surgery for colon cancer that I underwent in late May that year.
The goal wasn't merely to prove that a 71-year-old guy can come back from major surgery and resume normal activity, even if the "normal" activity seems like a stretch to the sedentary of any age. It was also to acknowledge successful recovery from cancer while various friends are battling the Big-C, or have lost their battles.
Performing well at those 2011 anniversary games had become a single-minded focus that August and September following a required two-month recovery period without strenuous exercise. And so I proudly displayed, on my return, the Bronze medal I won for finishing third in my race.
So having turned 75, the appeal to return to St. George again to see how I can fare in the 75-79 group won out.
I closed a column three years ago on that 2011 experience thusly: Life is a race to be appreciated for the joy of participation, and whether world class, or a bit slower, making in to the finish line while leaving behind cancer, or any other physical or mental obstacle, is really the sweetest race to win.