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Memorial honors gambler with heart

Mon., June 2, 2008

BOISE – Joyful, smiling, shaking hands, “Mr. Simplot was fluent in the universal language,” said Larry Hlobik, president and CEO of the J.R. Simplot Co., who opened Simplot’s memorial service at Qwest Arena.

“He was always real and from the heart.”

About 1,000 people gathered Sunday to celebrate the man who put Idaho on the map and Idaho potatoes into dishes around the world.

Simplot loved the Boise Philharmonic and loved to sing. During the service, the philharmonic played some of Simplot’s favorite arrangements, including “Battle Hymn of the Republic” sung by the Boise Master Chorale.

Simplot, a billionaire best known for providing McDonald’s Corp. with its frozen french fries, died May 25 at his Boise home at age 99.

Two weeks earlier, he had celebrated the birth of his first great-great-grandchild.

Son Don Simplot said J.R. was convinced he would live to be 100, and the family was, too.

“He was doing so well,” Don said with a laugh.

“I was sure he had some money on it. He bet on everything.”

Always up for a game, J.R. had probably gone through one or two decks of cards a week for almost 100 years, Don said.

J.R. was a facts man and religion just didn’t add up for him, Don said.

“Dad had his own faith,” Don said. “He told (his wife) Esther it was so special he didn’t want to share it with anyone because they might steal it.”

Don summed up J.R.’s personal religion with a quote from the Dalai Lama: “There is no need for temples or complicated philosophy. Our heart is our temple, and our philosophy is kindness.”

Grandson John Otter noted that J.R. always had time for family.

Once when John was planning to run a race around Payette Lake, J.R. insisted on driving him to the starting line. As the clock was ticking down to the start, the runners packed closer to the line. Muscles tensed and J.R. yelled from the sideline, “John, you find somebody you think you can beat, I’ll back you for 500,” John said.

Former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt recalled that J.R. used to talk about living to 100 by buying new body parts as old ones wore out.

“He had the enviable ability to make you feel like you were the one he wanted to see,” Batt said. “He had an instinct for making money and the heart to give it away.”

Don Lubin, who served with Simplot on the McDonald’s board, remembered how Simplot had lent him his Lincoln with the Mr. Spud license plates. Boise police pulled Lubin over because they thought the car had been stolen.

They were even more suspicious when Lubin pulled out a Chicago driver’s license, Lubin said, but J.R. vouched for him.

“Jack’s twilight years were much brighter than most people’s daylight,” Lubin said. “He had a pioneer spirit. He knew no bounds.”

Tommy Basabe, who runs Simplot’s Land and Livestock Division, introduced himself as Jack Simplot’s plumber.

He said Simplot has been in his life for 50 years.

“And I mean IN it,” he said.

“If the old man said it was going to be OK, it was going to be OK. He was the backstop for a lot of us.”

He called Simplot the icon of the Idaho rancher, pulling dollars through the small towns along the Snake River, from Blackfoot to Parma.

“Everyone knew he was a gambler, but he wasn’t a hip shooter,” Basabe said.

“He bet on his own judgment, and he drove that so deep in me it’ll never come out.”

One of the biggest compliments J.R. ever paid anyone was “I gotta take my hat off to ya,” an emotional Basabe said.

Basabe left his hat in his pickup and asked the guests to indulge him in a round of applause for J.R., which led to a standing ovation.

The family had prepared several photo montages of J.R.’s life set to music – including snapshots of Simplot pheasant hunting, country dancing, getting a hot dog at Brundage and with Ronald McDonald interspersed throughout the service.

Simplot also now has a permanent seat at Qwest Arena, H102, which was decorated with flowers.

Grandsons Michael Simplot and John Otter hosted the ceremony, sharing stories of their life with J.R.

“He always tried to define big for us,” Otter said.

“And when he did, he was usually on the rangeland, looking up at the big blue sky.”


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