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Huntsmans hoping to make Russian ambassadorship 'a positive journey'

By Marjorie Cortez, KSL  |  Posted Oct 12th, 2017 @ 8:42am


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SALT LAKE CITY — Even for a family that has moved 15 times, Mary Kaye Huntsman says there's some trepidation about the Huntsmans' move to Moscow, as Jon Huntsman Jr. begins his service as U.S. ambassador to Russia.

It's not so much the steep challenge of improving U.S.-Russia relations that weighs heavy on her mind; it's leaving behind their adult children — two daughters, Abby and Mary Anne, are expecting — as well as the couple's aging parents and "the warmth of people at home," she said.

But it was the Huntsmans' seven children who enthusiastically encouraged their father to accept the appointment, Mary Kaye Huntsman said.

"He couldn’t do it if it weren’t for them. Each one of them, everyone said, ‘Do it. Do it. Do it.' As hard as they knew it was going to be, our two boys in the Navy particularly, said, ‘Without a doubt, Dad. You get up and you do this. You taught us about service, now you do it.'

"It’s really given us that extra strength to say, ‘Of course, we’re going to get up and do this.' It’s not going to be easy; we know that. … This is not a role that’s just a cakewalk. It’s going to be difficult. But I think my husband does extremely well when he’s challenged, and I know he’s going to get in there and do some extraordinary things," she said Tuesday during a taping of KSL Newsradio's "A Woman's View," hosted by Amanda Dickson. The program airs at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Sunday.

When Jon Huntsman Jr. broached the idea with his wife, she was getting ready for bed. He was in Korea when he received a phone call from then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who extended the appointment.

"So he called me, and I was standing, I remember, in my our bathroom in our home, getting ready for bed," Mary Kaye Huntsman recalled. "He said, ‘You won’t believe this.’ I had no clue what it would be, and he said, ‘Russia.’

"I sat there for a minute and I kind of laughed, and I said, ‘Well, being from Florida, I hate being cold and I’m not so sure about Russian food, but you know what? Let’s do it. And here we are."

For Mary Kaye Huntsman, this week's to-do list has been filled with typical last-minute chores before the long plane trip to Moscow and settling into the embassy, dropping off her husband's dress shirts at the dry cleaner, briefing 11-year-old Asha about her new school.

The Huntsmans' youngest daughters, Gracie, 18, and Asha, will accompany their parents to Moscow. Gracie, who recently graduated from high school and has been admitted to the University of Pennsylvania, has elected to take a gap year.

Asha will attend the Anglo-American School of Moscow, which serves students preschool age through the 12th grade.

The school is chartered by the American, British and Canadian embassies in Moscow. About 20 percent of the school's students are Russian, Mary Kaye Huntsman said.

Touring the school that Asha will attend, for that matter spending time in Moscow in general, relieved a lot of her anxieties about the move, she said.

"The last time I have actually been in Moscow had been back in 1995, so it had been a long time. In my mind, I was picturing Moscow 1995. So I was pleasantly surprised when I got there and thought, ‘You know, we can do this,'" Mary Kaye Huntsman said.

She is buoyed by her husband's sense of calm and his long career in public service that dates back to Ronald Reagan's presidency.

Jon Huntsman Jr., Utah's governor from January 2005 to August 2009, previously served as ambassador to China under former President Barack Obama and ambassador to Singapore under former President George H.W. Bush.

"This is going to be the sixth president that he has served since Ronald Reagan. He has served every single one of them. (He) may be the first. I don’t know if there’s anyone else that’s hit all of them. But we go back to advance days when we were dating with Ronald Reagan and right on through," she said.

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Prior to her husband's first diplomatic assignment, Mary Kaye Huntsman was just 29 years old. Within the span of one week, the mother of two learned she was pregnant with the couple's third child, her husband had been appointed ambassador to Singapore, and her sister Susan was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Three weeks later, her sister died.

"We left the very next morning after her funeral to go back to ambassadorial school. I remember turning the bathtub on and letting the water come. I didn’t want Jon to hear me crying. I just had to mourn. I just didn’t have time to go through that," Mary Kaye Huntsman said.

At ambassadorial school, she was given a huge notebook of things she need to know as her husband assumed his appointment.

"It was overwhelming at first. It was the spouses' notebook. I just thought, ‘You know what? It’s OK. After what we’ve just been through with Susan, you just get up and you go. You take it a day at a time," she said.

Mary Kaye Huntsman also learned the importance of welcoming her birthday, she said. Her sister was in her 30s when she died, and she had two daughters ages 3 and 5.

"The older I get and the more birthdays I have, I am so grateful for every one. Instead of thinking, ‘Oh, I’m getting older,' it’s like, ‘Another birthday, how grateful to be able to have that,'" she said.

As for her husband's new diplomatic role in Russia, Mary Kaye Huntsman said his communication skills and wide array of experiences should serve him well.

"I feel like Jon’s prepared for this and will be extraordinary for the U.S.-Russia relationship," she said.

Mary Kaye Huntsman said she is particularly looking forward to connecting with foreign service employees who dedicate their professional lives to the service of their country.

"They just get up and go. I mean, we’ve moved 15 times. They’ve moved 30, 40 times. It’s unbelievable. They pick up and they go every two years somewhere. So they’re probably the ones I look up to the most and admire," she said.

While she admits to being partial, Mary Kaye Huntsman said her husband is a man of integrity and honesty. He is genuinely interested in other people and is a good listener, she said.

"I watch him in the embassy going in and shaking hands with an employee and saying, ‘Tell me about your life?’ That’s just who he is. He always wants to know what other people are doing and let them know he cares about them.

"I’d say probably his greatest gift is that he’s a great listener. He listens. Whether it’s to our 11-year-old or our 32-year-old or someone in the embassy or someone on the street, he is an extremely good listener," she said.

Given the state of relations between Russia and the United States, the new diplomatic appointment is challenge like no other, Mary Kaye Huntsman said.

"I think we’ve kind of hit the bottom, and (when) you’re bouncing along the bottom, you’ve got to go up. So I’m trying to be positive. Jon’s trying to be positive, and we are going to do our best to make this a positive journey," she said.

A recent meeting with President Donald Trump "was a real comfort. I think he has a real trust and confidence in Jon going forward," Mary Kaye Huntsman said.

The meeting made her realize that the appointment "is a much bigger role today than even three months ago," she said.

Still, the Huntsmans approach the role with optimism and a sense of duty, the same sense of service that drew them together as young people when they were both volunteering with then-candidate Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s.

"For Jon and for me, we don’t take this lightly. We take it as a huge responsibility. America’s trusting us to go over there and give it our all, so we take it very seriously. It is a huge responsibility, and it’s an honor. We’re humbled to be able to do this."

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