Mary Kaye Huntsman is an inspiring woman and mother of seven. She truly is beautiful inside and out. When I first started Melisa’s Inspiring Mom series, I immediately thought of her and what a dream it would be to sit down and talk to her. I put her name on a napkin writing out my “Dream List” of moms I wanted to interview. I am so honored she agreed to meet with me and talk all things motherhood and life.
We found we have so much in common and immediately hit it off like instant friends. Mary Kaye is so warm and easy to talk to. We both are Florida girls, raised in the sunshine state and later moved to Utah. We both have 5th graders, and we both share a wedding anniversary in November.
Mary Kaye has traveled the world all over and served as First Lady of Utah and First Lady as US Ambassador to China and US Ambassador to Russia. She has seen it all and done it all. But it truly is being a mother that she is most proud of and loves the most.
Mary Kaye shined talking about her children and grandchildren. She scrolled through her phone showing me her precious family pictures while gleaming ear to ear. She is such an example of motherhood and family first in her life. She is a loving wife and huge support and rock to her husband, former Governor of Utah and 2020 Utah Gubernatorial candidate Jon Huntsman, Jr.
Mary Kaye’s Love Story with Jon
Mary Kaye moved to Utah from Orlando, Florida when she was in 9th grade. She went to Highland High School in Salt Lake City and met a boy named Jon Huntsman. There was an instant spark. For the next several years the timing was always off.
She explained, “He was either dating someone, or I was dating someone.” They continued to see each other from across the hall and the chemistry remained.
Seven years later Mary Kaye was at Arizona State University and Jon was doing advance work for President Ronald Reagan. He was taking a trip to Scottsdale and asked her if they could get together. They’ve been inseparable ever since.
They say true love will find each other. In this case, it came across the country and lasted the test of time. Mary Kaye said, “Timing is everything.” They will be celebrating 35 years of marriage in November.
I had to ask for some marriage advice. She said, “Be selfless and forgiving. I think the number one cause of divorce is selfishness: selfishness from one partner or both. It’s important to try to understand what our partner might be going through. And always ask each other at the end of the day how their day was.”
Life gets busy and especially with kids. It’s so easy to forget to ask about the little things. It was a great reminder to me. She then told me that, “On our bedside table we have a quote ‘Always kiss me goodnight’.” It’s so sweet how they’ve made each other a priority. She loved talking about him and it was genuine and sincere. It is such a joy to see that in a couple. They are truly an example to their children and everyone they come across.
A Tragic Loss
“My sister Susan was just 34. She had two little girls ages 3 and 5. She was diagnosed with Lung cancer on May 8, 1992 and given six months to live. The same week my husband was appointed US ambassador to Singapore. He was just 32 at the time. We also learned that week that I was pregnant with our son Will. Many emotions were felt, including not wanting to leave my sister. Unfortunately, she died only three weeks later on June 2. The day after the funeral, Jon and I had to go to DC for ambassadorial training for two weeks. I didn’t really have time to grieve, so I would close the bathroom door in our hotel room, turn the bathtub water on full blast, and let my tears fall.”
Upon hearing this my eyes filled with tears and my heart broke for Mary Kaye and her sister’s family.
She continued, “One of the last things my sweet sister said to me was, ‘I may not be with you when your baby is born, but I will be with you!’ The last time I was with her (she couldn’t speak because she was on oxygen) she pointed to herself and then drew a heart in the air and then pointed at me as she was trying to say I love you.”
I asked Mary Kaye how she gets through hard times. She said, “The older I get, I try to work hard on staying present and living in the moment… I never think I am getting older, I just feel grateful each year to have another birthday.”
This is beautiful advice we would all do well to remember. She also works on and believes in the 4 7 8 breathing technique. It really helps if she finds herself stressed or worried.
A few months later in Singapore, the 5th Huntsman baby was born and they named him Will. Mary Kaye called him her “Sunshine Boy”. This was fitting after a devastating time in her life. God gave Mary Kaye and her family a little gift from heaven. She found peace and strength from her new baby, her children, and her husband. They have always been her joy and strength in hard times.
A Genuine Love for Adoption
The Seed is Planted
In the late 1980s with two small children, the Huntsmans moved from Utah to Taiwan. Mary Kaye adapted her life, embraced the change, and supported her husband. While in Taiwan, she visited an orphanage. There she saw nuns taking care of babies and children who were lying on blankets and mats all over the floor. Mary Kaye explained that her heart was forever changed that day, and she knew one day she and Jon would adopt a baby.
As a young girl, Mary Kaye never thought she’d adopt a child. After her experience at the orphanage in Taiwan, however, Mary Kaye knew adoption was right for her family.
Many years later on May 19, 1999 Jon said, “I’m warming up to the idea of adopting a baby from China.” She remembers that moment like it was yesterday.
They started the process, and on November 30th of that same year they got a call that they were placed with a baby. The baby’s birthday was May 19th, 1999, the same day they decided together it was time to adopt; they couldn’t believe it.
Their new child Gracie Mei had been abandoned in a vegetable market in China. She was found by the police and taken to the orphanage. A few years ago, Jon and Mary Kaye took Gracie Mei back to that very vegetable market where she was left as a newborn baby. It was a moment they will forever remember, and they know she was a true gift to them.
About six years later they decided to adopt another baby from India. Her name is Asha Bharati. She was another beautiful gift and miracle in their lives. She was abandoned in a field, and a farmer found her. She was taken to an orphanage as well. There was a lot of red tape to go through before the Huntsmans could bring Asha home. She was placed with them when she was 2 months old, but they couldn’t bring her home until she was 14 months old.
These two girls are both beautiful and true gifts to their parents and the entire family. Gracie Mei is now 17 and Asha is 10-years-old.
In 2004 Jon Hunstman, Jr. became the Governor of Utah and Mary Kaye became the First Lady. She was an amazing first lady and started programs that have helped change lives.
Bag of Hope
In prior years she started “The Bag of Hope”. When their daughter Liddy was only 8-years-old, she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. Mary Kaye felt it would be good for her daughter to meet with other children with diabetes.
They put together a care package for a little boy who was in the hospital. Her daughter was so excited to give and share with that little boy that she skipped out of the hospital!
That was the beginning of what is now a national children’s program headed by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). You can go here to request a bag.
It gives children with diabetes the chance to communicate with and help other children with the same disease. Having your child being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes can be an extremely overwhelming time. Now the JDRF has “Bag of Hope” that helps these kids and parents with this hard time, and it was all started by Mary Kaye Huntsman.
Power in You
Building on her experience of “Bag of Hope”, Mary Kaye developed a program called “Power in You”. It aimed to give teens hope by providing them with inspirational stories from young adults and life improvement by directing them to numerous help to create support for their challenges.
She created life changing videos and powerful stories that touched and helped teens.
One idea she created was an ad campaign called “Punt the Keys.” It was based on a tragic story of a star football player from Skyline High School in Utah who got behind a wheel while drunk. His bad choice killed an expectant mother of two children, while her husband survived.
Mary Kaye used this young man’s tragedy to share his story and help other teens realize how getting behind the wheel while drunk will destroy your life. In an instant, from one awful choice, his life and others’ were changed forever. The “Punt the Keys” campaign resonated with teens and parents as well.
She got University of Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham and kicker Louie Sakoda to get behind this campaign to “Punt the Keys” to be an example to younger teens to never drink and drive. During this program, they witnessed a powerful moment when the husband and father of those killed in the accident forgave the boy who was driving drunk.
The “Power in You” program focused on helping teens realize their self-worth. It included a Power Tour, with ambassadors and adult mentors traveling to schools throughout the state. They discussed topics that ranged from cyber bullying, drug addiction, and other teen adversities. The message is despite the difficulties, teens have the power inside of them to make positive choices.
Mother to Seven Her Greatest JOY
During our visit, Mary Kaye leaned over and showed me pictures of her kids on her phone. She is such a sweet mom and was so proud to show me her children. On Mary Kaye’s desk in her home office a plaque reads “My greatest blessings call me Mom”.
When visiting with Mary Kaye, it’s immediately evident she loves being a mom and it truly is her greatest joy and life’s work. Even through being the First Lady of Utah, living in Taiwan, and supporting her husband running for President in 2012 and for Governor of Utah in 2020, Mary Kaye Huntsman has been all about her kids. She is loving this phase in life and is always on the go with her kids and grandchildren.
All of her children are successful adults with an amazing work ethic and a desire to give back. I asked how they were able to instill that in their children. She said Jon has always been a hard worker. When he was 10-years-old, Jon ran a lawn-mowing business. When they were in high school, Jon and Mary Kaye both worked at Marie Calendars restaurant. Jon worked as the dishwasher and she was the salad girl.
Mary Kaye told me, “We always talked about service and giving back with our kids growing up, and to find their passions.”
Each found a different path early on. Mary Anne gravitated to piano at age three, Abby to acting and journalism, Liddy to helping those with Juvenile Diabetes, Jon III and Will wanted to serve their country from early on, which was stressed through their experiences with public service in our family. Gracie and Asha are growing up with great influences from their siblings.
“Each is so different, and you want all of your kids to find what drives them inside and as parents, guide them to succeed in those dreams.”
I am truly so amazed at their children. Mary Anne is now a concert pianist, and she just played with the Utah Symphony the weekend of our visit. You can see Abby as an anchor on “Fox And Friends”. Liddy continues to work with the Juvenile Diabetes program and is a mom herself. Jon III graduated from the Naval Academy and is an active duty Naval Officer. He and his wife are expecting a baby in the New Year. Will is also a recent graduate from Naval Academy and active duty Naval Officer.
As we were talking about her boys, she told me that Jon III was the first boy to be born in a hundred years on her mother’s side. She said, “We had three girls and when I got pregnant with the fourth I told the doctor at the ultrasound that I already knew what it was. He said, ‘Well, do you have a little boy’s named picked out?’ My mother had three girls. My two sisters had girls as well. We were shocked. I went straight from the hospital and bought a wooden airplane (which we still have) and airplane pajamas. I don’t know why I gravitated to the airplanes, but today our son Jon is now a navy fighter pilot.”
I loved that! I told her he was born to fly and that her boys were wonderful men.
She quickly said, “They are both extraordinary. I don’t deserve them. It makes me realize that our country is in great hands with people like them willing to serve. Their honor and integrity are examples that make me want to strive to be a better person every day.”
I had chills. These are great men with an incredible mom. I love the way she loves them.
Mary Kaye wakes up every night at 3 am worrying about her boys. She showed me a picture of her son Jon III flying his plane upside down. I asked how that makes her feel. She said, “Oh I hate it.”
She told me, “One of the questions Jon and I have tried to ask our children as they were growing up is… ‘What did you do today to make someone else’s life better?’ Sometimes they would have to think hard (as they might have been worrying more about themselves), but many times they would say something sweet (like sat with someone who was alone at lunch). It’s a great question for all of us to ask ourselves at the end of each day!”
I asked Mary Kaye what her greatest joy is. She said, “Honestly, my greatest joy, whether it is my grandchildren, my children, or my husband, is to watch them as they achieve a goal or a dream. Also, when there is peace and laughter in the home. My deepest hurt comes from knowing one of them has been let down in some way and wanting to take that pain away for them.”
She has raised such amazing children. In her words, “My children are my world as I know yours are too.” She also encouraged young moms to slow down and enjoy the moment. She identifies with the song “Don’t Blink” by Kenny Chesney. After we talked I listened to it and yes, it did make me cry. Don’t blink; they grow so fast.
She said of motherhood, “It is full of one and only moments. Those are the moments we need to cherish. As a mom, if you feel centered you’ll be happy.” Beautiful advice.
Her Greatest Mentor
I love who she told me was her greatest mentor.
She said, “My dear dear 85-year-old mother. She has never said an unkind word about another or judged someone who may be different. She always has a way of making people feel better about themselves. Whenever you’re around her, she makes whoever she is talking to feel as if they are the most important person. She is what I truly call an angel on earth.”
What a beautiful tribute to her mother. You can see where she gets her kindness and beautiful heart from.
Mary Kaye’s Favorites
I had to ask this beautiful and fashionable mom what some of her favorites are. I love to know and I know you do too. Here’s her favorite quote:
“There is no exercise greater for the human heart than leaning down to pick another up.”
Favorite Hair Product: Morrocan Oil
Favorite Cleaning Supply: Windex–cleans windows, glass, rings, and counter tops
Favorite Makeup: Nars Lip gloss
Favorite Book: The Gift of the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Favorite Vacation Spot: Singapore–very special memories there
Favorite Candy: Butterfinger
I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to meet and get to know Mary Kaye. I left feeling inspired, uplifted, and so impressed with her. She is so gracious in every way, warm, and so easy to talk to. It truly was a dream come true. She was in town for only a weekend celebrating her birthday and her daughter’s performance in the Utah Symphony, but she still made time for me. I’m still in awe of her kindness and I will never forget it.
I thought of how many reporters and journalists, well known respected in their field would have loved to be sitting where I was, and she made time for me. We hit it off and I admire her so much more now.
The Huntsmans truly are a tight-knit family that value hard work and supporting one another. I left feeling like we are girlfriends and I have a feeling she makes everyone that comes in her path feel that way. She is absolutely beautiful inside and out with so much wisdom.
Thank you, Mary Kaye! I am so happy to share your love as a mom and your light. You are an example to so many and touch everyone’s life for the better when they come in contact with you.