Freethought of the Day

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There are 2 entries for this date: J.R. Simplot and Michael Stipe
J.R. Simplot

J.R. Simplot

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, Simplot 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 common practice of planting potato culls. 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. 

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."

—"What I've Learned: J.R. Simplot" (Esquire magazine, February 2001)

Compiled by Bill Dunn

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Michael Stipe

Michael Stipe

On this day in 1960, musician and film producer John Michael Stipe was born in Decatur, Georgia, into a family of Methodists. His father was in the U.S. Army and the family moved frequently. As a result he was a quiet child, preferring to spend time with his sisters more than with friends. He found his niche in high school, bonding with other students over his passion for punk rock.

After graduation he enrolled at the University of Georgia in Athens to study art and photography, where he met Peter Buck, Bill Berry and Mike Mills. They formed the band R.E.M. in 1980 and released their first album, “Murmur” in 1983. R.E.M. released albums throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Among their most successful was “Out of Time” (1991), which featured the single “Losing My Religion,” arguably the band’s most well-known song. Despite the title, it's really not about religion, band members have said. Stipe described it as a song about unrequited love and as a "classic obsession song." Others have said the phrase is a Southern expression meaning being at wit's end or at the end of one's rope. The band broke up amicably in 2011.

Stipe later 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  Christian high schhol girl who gets pregnant. The film presents sharp commentary on evangelical Christians and received a lot of backlash from the Religious Right, including Jerry Falwell, who criticized the movie without bothering to see it.

Stipe has also done solo recording work and in 2019 published Michael Stipe: Volume 1, an artful collection of 35 of his photographs whittled down from more than 37,000 in his collection.

He has had intimate relationships with men and women and identifies as “queer” more than gay, he has said. As of this writing in 2019, he lives in New York City with photographer Thomas Dozol.

Stipe at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival. David Shankbone photo under CC 3.0.

"I'm actually not Buddhist. It's just that I'm bald and I have a certain demeanor and my voice is really low when I talk. ... I was raised Christian, though I'm not Christian either."

—Stipe, when asked by Rolling Stone about a rumor he was Buddhist (March 3, 2011)

Compiled by Dayna Long

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