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J.R. Simplot: 1909-2008

The co-founder of e-thePeople.org, Scott Reents, told me that he wanted to be JR Simplot when he grew up. For the last century, Simplott has been Idaho’s top dog and Scott grew up in Boise. Reading his obituary today in the NYT, I can see why a young person might idolize this man’s rags-to-riches tale, a billionaire who grew up in a sod-roofed log cabin and dropped out of school at 14. You can’t summarize his life briefly, but here’s an extended clip from his obit:

At 14, Jack, by his own account, left home after his father refused to let him attend a basketball game. His mother gave him $20 in gold coins, and he moved into a $1-a-night hotel in a nearby town. There were teachers living in the hotel who were being paid in interest-bearing scrip. Jack bought them at 50 cents on the dollar and sold them to a bank for 90 cents on the dollar.

He used this profit to buy a rifle, an old truck and either 600 or 700 hogs (accounts vary) at $1 a head. He used the rifle to shoot wild horses, which — after stripping the hides for future sale at $2 each — he mixed with potatoes and cooked on sagebrush-fueled flames. The hogs ate the result. When he sold the fattened pigs, Mr. Simplot made more than $7,000.

That gave him capital to buy farm machinery and six horses and become a potato farmer. Next, he acquired half of an electric potato sorter with a partner. After they argued, they flipped a coin for full ownership. Mr. Simplot won, and expanded to all phases of the potato industry.

Within a decade, Mr. Simplot was the largest shipper of potatoes in the West, with 33 warehouses in Oregon and Idaho.

Ultimately, his businesses included fertilizer, oil, animal feed, seed, beef cattle and ski resorts from Chile to China. The Idaho Statesman newspaper said that he owned the nation’s largest cattle ranch, in Oregon.

A $1 million investment in two engineers working in the basement of a dentist’s office in Boise made Mr. Simplot the largest shareholder in Micron Technology Inc., a major manufacturer of computer memory chips. The first board meetings were held in a pancake house in Boise.

But the NYT ends this obit appropriately. I would love to have this quote as my own epitaph:

“As he goes banging down the Sawtooth Mountains on skis, you hear him singing and laughing a half-mile away.”

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