On this date in 1909, John Richard "Jack" Simplot, Idaho potato baron, was born in Dubuque, Iowa. When he died at age 99, he was the Gem State's most famous billionaire and, very likely its only atheist billionaire, with an estimated net worth close to $4 billion. In 2001, seven years before he died, he told Esquire magazine, "You're dead, that's the end of you. There's no tomorrow." As a child he moved with his family to south-central Idaho. "It was a hard, crude life, reported the Idaho Statesman, profiling Simplot. "When young J.R. lost a fingertip in an accident and a doctor in Burley admonished his parents for not bringing it to be reattached, they told him the chickens had eaten it." Chafing under the rule of his authoritarian father, who was an atheist, Jack quit school and struck out on his own at age 14. The Statesman told how he got started: "With money he made raising orphaned lambs, he purchased interest-bearing scrip at 50 cents on the dollar from teachers living at the hotel and used it as collateral to buy 600 hogs. He got them through the winter by shooting wild horses and boiling their meat with potato scraps to make feed. The summer brought a nationwide pork shortage, and he sold the hogs for a $7,800 profit, which became his stake in the potato business. An innovator from the start, he leased land and bought certified seed instead of using the then-common practice of planting potato culls. The result was better potatoes and the beginning of Idaho's dominance in the industry." The J.R. Simplot Co. was the nation's largest shipper of fresh potatoes in World War II. But it was frozen french fries that made him a billionaire, a process Simplot patented in 1953. In 1967, he and McDonald's founder Ray Kroc agreed with a handshake that Simplot would supply McDonald's with fries. By 2005, Simplot supplied more than half of all fries for all the McDonald's restaurants. "Compared with him, the rest of the world was wearing bifocals," Idaho Gov. C.E. "Butch" Otter said in 2008. (For a time, Otter was married to Simplot's daughter Gay.) Simplot was plain-spoken and at times profane. (He told Esquire: "I'm a happy guy. I learned to leave the goddamn liquor behind. . . . I never choose sides in politics. That's bullshit. I have to get along with whoever gets in.") The license plate on his Lincoln Town Car said MR SPUD. Almost 30,000 people worked for companies Simplot founded or financed. He was the main investor behind start-up Micron Technology Inc., a major semiconductor manufacturer headquartered in Boise, which is one of the state's largest employers. He owned the nation's largest cattle ranch, in Oregon, and had holdings from China to Chile, as well at home with the Idaho Steelheads, a minor-league hockey team.
Simplot angered environmentalists for his support in the 1970s for building coal-fired power plants along the Snake River and generating hydropower by putting the North Fork of the Payette River in an underground tube. "He and his company have not been environmental stewards for Idaho's lands and waters," said Pat Ford, a former director of the Idaho Conservation League. "They were consistent opponents of efforts to strengthen Idaho's air quality and land-use laws. And more often than not, they won." He also had some problems with the government after World War II and was hit by a $2.5 million tax bill and an order to dismantle partnerships that the Internal Revenue Service judged to be tax dodges. "A generation later, Simplot was charged with trying to manipulate Maine potato futures, barred from commodities trading for six years and fined $50,000," the Statesman reported. "In 1977, he and his company paid $40,000 each for failing to report more than $1 million in corporate income and claiming false tax deductions." He lost his right to vote due to the felony conviction but continued to extol America and free enterprise. Simplot retired as company president in 1973 but remained as chairman until 1994. He died at home, with his second wife at his side, after a bout of pneumonia from which he appeared to be recovering. His death occurred moments after he had invited a friend to his home to play cards. Gin rummy was his game. Simplot often wore an off-white cowboy hat that was part of his signature look. It was included as part of a floral arrangement and was stolen during his memorial service at Qwest Arena. It took nine months for the thief to return it, a week after a newspaper columnist pleaded for its return. Why would someone steal J.R. Simplot's hat? "Stupidity," the anonymous caller to the newspaper said. "It was one of those stupid, impulsive acts and was almost instantly regretted." D. 2008.
"I got no religion in me. I could never see through it. Basically, I'm a facts man; if I can't see through it, I say it's not possible. In my lifetime, I bet you we killed thirty to forty million people. It's dictators. It's religion. But we've got that stopped, I'm sure. I'd say the atomic bomb stopped everybody short."
—"What I've Learned: J.R. Simplot" (Esquire magazine, February 2001)
By Bill Dunn
© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.
On this day in 1960, musician and film producer Michael Stipe was born in Decatur Georgia. His father was a serviceman in the United States Army and the family moved frequently throughout his childhood. As a result, Stipe was a quiet child, preferring to spend time with his sisters, Cyndy and Lynda, rather than other kids. He found his niche in high school, bonding with other students over his passion for punk rock and, for a brief time, forming a punk rock cover band. He graduated from high school in 1978, and enrolled at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., to study art and photography, where he met Peter Buck, Bill Berry, and Mike Mills. The four formed the band R.E.M. in 1980 and released their first album, “Murmur” in 1983, after signing with I.R.S. Records. R.E.M.’s success spanned over 20 years, as they continued to release successful albums throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Among their most successful albums was their 1991 hit, “Out of Time,” which featured the single, “Losing My Religion,” arguably the band’s most well-known song. Other popular singles include “Shiny Happy People” (1991), “Everybody Hurts” (1992), and “What’s the Frequency Kenneth” (1994).
More recently, Stipe has focused on film and art. In the late 1990s he started a film company, Single Cell Productions, which released “American Movie” (1999) and “Being John Malkovich” (1999). He has several credentials as a producer, including the irreverent 2004 movie, “Saved!,” about a girl attending a Christian high school who becomes pregnant. The film presents a sharp commentary on evangelical Christians and received a lot of backlash from some members of the Religious Right, including Jerry Falwell, who criticized the movie without bothering to see it. Stipe, who identifies as “queer,” lives in New York City with his partner, photographer Thomas Dozol. Although Michael Stipe was raised as a Methodist, he no longer subscribes to his family’s faith.
“I think that where we are right now, the 21st century ... is going to prove a very difficult testing ground for organized religion and for people of faith. A lot of the ideas that are still being held onto — I call them 'hangovers' — seem to be mid-century or even earlier. (They are) 19th century, 20th century ideas that are almost anachronistic in 2004. And so, if organized religion and people of faith want to continue into the 21st century, I think they kind of have to live in the times that we're living. You have to understand that the holy scripture is a very important part of my life, and my upbringing, and the culture that I came up through — but it's allegory.”
—– Michael Stipe in an interview with Daily Press, June 19, 2004
Compiled by Dayna Long; Photo by Jstone, Shutterstock.com
© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.