The last of the Idaho tycoons: The passing, today, of J.R. Simplot puts a period on the passing of a time in Idaho business, and commerce and society and politics too.
A couple of generations ago, there they were - Jack Simplot, Joe Albertson, Harry Morrison, several others who created a whole substantial community of highly successful big businesses in little, out of the way Boise, Idaho. Boise was a government town too, of course, even then - in the 50s, 60s, 70s - but also despite its small size a place where a string of varied big businesses held sway (Simplot in food processing, Albertson in groceries, Morrison-Knudsen in construction, Boise-Cascade in timber and so on). These businessmen were true entrepreneurs, innovators and creators. As important, these businessmen were local guys, from and resident of (and they would never consider living anywhere else) Idaho. Simplot himself came from the small town of Declo; though he would do business around the globe, Boise was always his place.
Idaho business was chiefly home-grown, and people like Simplot were its local success stories, the Horatio Alger hero you might run into on the sidewalk or down at Elmer's. Lots and lots of people did. If he was also a tycoon, in the true original sense of a merchant-prince (and never underestimate the clout he had in Idaho government and politics), he also was once very much a part of plain-spoken, home-town Idaho. His house might have been (as it was until recently when he donated it to the state) a stately place up on a hill, but he also was also very much a part of, integral to, his community. If Idaho has long been one of the most business-enthusiastic places in the country, you can attribute a part of that to those local kids made good, like Simplot and Albertson.
Simplot, 99 at his passing, was the last of them. He lived to see a different kind of business community, one mostly owned from afar, in many cases dismantling or downsizing his contemporaries' creations. His own operations, the Simplot Company (still privately owned and run by the family) and Micron Technology (of which he was a key early financer), now are the only really large-scale exceptions to that. Simplot probably would have fought fiercely, even to the end, any attempt to do with the businesses he founded or underwrote what happened to Albertson's and several of the others. And maybe, quietly, he had occasion to.
Now comes another generation. And some time from now, we may reflect on what Jack Simplot would have thought of what it does. Whatever that is, we know this: There would be nothing shy about his opinions.