By Lorie Swaydan, Huntsman World Senior Games
“Just what makes that little old ant
Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant?
Anyone knows an ant, can’t
Move a rubber tree plant
But he’s got high hopes
He’s got high hopes
He’s got high apple pie
In the sky hopes.”
These are the lyrics to the 1959 Oscar-winning song “High Hopes”. And this was the song that the Morgan household listened to on many a morning as they readied themselves for the day. John H. Morgan, Jr. was the founder of the Huntsman World Senior Games. After 98 years of a life built on optimism and perseverance, John passed away on January 14, 2022. But his dream of a sporting competition for seniors committed to the principles of worldwide peace, health and friendship continues as we look forward to the 35th year of the Huntsman World Senior Games this October.
In 1923 World War I and the flu pandemic of 1918 were over. Calvin Coolidge was President, Yankee Stadium was brand new, and The Walt Disney Company was just getting off the ground. On October 11 of that year, John Hamilton Morgan, Jr. was born in Salt Lake City,Utah, where he grew up to personify the optimism, vision and ingenuity of this new era.
In his youth, John developed a passion for watching the New York Yankees play baseball. He also loved competing in tennis, which he did until he was 96 years old. Another competitive outlet was the game of marbles. At the age of 12, John entered and won the Salt Lake Marble Tournament. Though seemingly a small victory, this achievement instilled in John two things: a love of competition and the belief that with hard work and a vision, anything was possible.
Although John loved competition, he was also deeply committed to service to others. In 1943 along with thousands of others, John became part of the “Greatest Generation” serving his country during World War II. Stationed in Europe, he was part of the 44th Infantry Division whose mission was to provide food, ammunition and supplies to frontline soldiers. He served for two years before the war ended, and he returned to the United States to open a new chapter in his life.
Two life-changing events occurred for John in 1950. First, he graduated from the University of Utah where he had earned a degree in Political Science and Business. It was there that he also met the love of his life, Daisy Richter. According to family lore, “John knew that she was the ONE from the moment he laid eyes on her.” They were married in Salt Lake on June 12th, full of hope for their future. Over the next few years, they were blessed with four children: John H. Morgan III, Patricia, Victoria and Anne.
John’s creativity and business savvy led him to join forces with his father John H. Morgan, Sr. and Clarence Justheim, known to others as the “Three Musketeers.” They organized the Uintah Wyoming Oil and Gas Company. John’s daughter Anne had the privilege of working with her dad for a few years. She recalled traveling to New York City, meeting in “glitzy” Park Avenue offices watching her dad negotiate with heads of some of the largest oil companies in America. She marveled, “Here’s this guy from Utah pitching them a deal and they love him! Well, who wouldn’t?” John’s optimistic vision for the company was evident. In 1967 Uintah Wyoming Oil and Gas merged into Utah Resources International and in collaboration with Morgan Gas and Oil, Justheim Petroleum Company and Wyoming Petroleum Corporation, they acquired 906 acres in St. George, Utah. It was to be the first of many investments in the area.
Although Salt Lake City was home, John and his family had always loved visiting St. George, a lovely little farming town tucked away in the southwest corner of Utah. Family vacations to the area were mixed with camping, hiking and geology lessons that deepened the family’s appreciation of the history and beauty of Utah. In 1970 St. George had a population of about 14,000, and to John it was a place of beautiful landscapes and friendly people. John recalled, “I just felt good when I was in St. George.” And he began to imagine that St. George, “...had the potential to become a great resort, recreation and retirement community.”
Typical of John, the development of St. George was not just about a personal financial investment. It was about building a community where everyone would be lifted up and invited to participate in a wonderful opportunity. It began with a golf course built on the lava fields west of town, Lava Hills Golf Course now called Southgate Golf Course. Then, John thought, “Well, now people are going to need a nice place to stay when they come to golf.” So he purchased a hotel franchise and built the first Hilton in St. George: the St. George Hilton Inn, now the Desert Garden Inn, which his wife Daisy managed for 14 years.
But John was not satisfied with a golf course and a hotel. He and Daisy, along with friends and community members, began to envision a sporting event that would be open to senior athletes from all over the world. He contacted Sylvia Wunderli whom he had met through political endeavors and asked if she would like to help. She agreed. They held a meeting at the Alta Club in the Salt Lake area and proposed their plan to potential backers. Then a second meeting was held in St. George with the “movers and shakers”of southwest Utah, including the president of (then) Dixie College and the mayor of St. George. Finally, in 1987 what was known then as the World Senior Olympics were launched.
John and Sylvia made a good team. Sylvia remembers, “John was so easy to work with. We complemented each other well. John had lots of contacts, and I was good at organizing events. Together we made it all work out.” According to Sylvia, who served as the Executive Director of the Games until 1994, “It was shaky at first.The competition was set for October, and even though we had sent out 10,000 invitations, by August no one had yet sent in their registration.” Sylvia and John were worried, so John went to Daisy for advice. Maybe they should postpone. Maybe it was just too much to hope for. But Daisy assured John saying, “We are going to have the World Senior Olympics if you and I are the only ones who enter!” That was good enough for John, and soon the registrations were flowing in. Sylvia helped John contact sports organizations around the United States and especially in the state of Utah. They were able to secure the help of some of the top sports directors for golf, tennis and horseshoes. By October there were 325 registered athletes, all coming to compete in 7 different sports: basketball, softball, cycling, golf, horseshoes, road races (5K, 10K and 15 Miles), and, of course, John’s favorite, tennis. The athletes brought with them spouses, partners and fans who wanted to cheer on their loved one and attend the social festivities. It was a great success!
In 1988 the name was changed to the World Senior Games, the age limit was lowered from 55 to 50, and five more sports were added. John and Sylvia visited Chambers of Commerce throughout the state of Utah. They invited friends and family. They created and sent out brochures. They took out ads and asked the local papers in Salt Lake and St. George to write articles promoting the Games. However, John knew that he still needed to do more fundraising to keep the Games going. He couldn’t just rely on his own resources year after year. John Wunderli, one of the original board members, recalls that John Morgan had approached Jon Huntsman, Sr., a local businessman and philanthropist and had asked him for $25,000 to keep the Games going for another year. When Jon Huntsman agreed, there was a big announcement ceremony planned at the St. George City Council meeting. “Everybody was there,” recalls John Wunderli. “But we were all completely surprised when Jon Huntsman announced that he was not giving $25,000 after all. Instead he would give $100,000!” He had caught the vision, and in 1989 the Huntsman Corporation became the principal sponsor of what is now known as the Huntsman World Senior Games.
Since then the Games have continued to grow. John Wunderli recalls that just after the Berlin Wall had come down in 1989, he and his wife Sylvia along with John and Daisy Morgan went on a recruiting trip to Germany. They met with athletes and dignitaries trying to recruit participants to the Games. During WWII basketball had become more popular throughout Germany. They had learned to play from the GI’s who had been stationed there during the war. Consequently, the East German basketball team came to play in the Games. Wunderli says, “This was the first time that the East German team had traveled anywhere outside their country to play since before WWII. It was a big deal!” Their dream of a world-wide sporting event was opening new possibilities for people all over the world.
And the growth has continued now for three and a half decades, adding new sports, social gatherings, entertainment and free life-saving health screenings for athletes and community members. In 1996 3,200 athletes participated. By 1998 participation grew to 4,500, and since 2010 registrations have consistently exceeded 10,000. Large and small businesses have stepped up as sponsors of the Games, and thousands of local residents volunteer year after year. The Huntsman World Senior Games is now the largest annual senior multi-sport competition in the world having hosted athletes from all 50 states and 83 different countries. This year team registration opened at midnight on January 1st. In the first 5 minutes, dozens of teams were already registered. By 1:00 a.m. over 70 women’s softball teams had registered and within the first 3 days of registration, there were over 420 teams registered and ready to compete this October!
Some might think that John’s success was because he had an easy life, but that is not true. John faced many challenges beginning when he was a child. His mother suffered from mental illness and was institutionalized when John was 10 years old. Consequently, he and his sisters leaned on each other for love and support as they grew to adulthood without the guidance of their mother. In later years, John was preceded in death by his only son and later his youngest daughter. In 2001 John lost the love of his life Daisy to complications due to Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, John’s businesses did not always run smoothly. His daughter Anne recalls that during the 1970’s, “...the small public companies that Dad had formed decades prior were catapulted into one complex crisis after another.” But Anne also makes clear that John’s consistent response to any personal or business challenge was one of courage, hope and grace towards others. She writes, “A character, like Dad’s, that has supported 98 years of life does not come without hardship. In fact, the hardships often make the man.”
Despite these difficulties, John continued to look for opportunities to help others. He raised funds to support the arts, business and service organizations. He served on the board of the Utah State Department of Business & Economic Development, was Co-Chair of the University of Utah Ballet Scholarship Program, served on the Board of Governors of the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, the boards of Intermountain Healthcare, KUED and Project 2000 and many others. He was particularly invested in the scholarship program for the Sons of Utah Pioneers. John’s grandfather started the first college in Salt Lake City, and John was determined to continue to support what his grandfather had started. For over 20 years John was the scholarship chairman during which time he gave out 2,727 scholarships to high school students in Davis and Salt Lake County. He visited each school and insisted on interviewing each participant personally. Anne remembers, “His ability to relate to young people was uncanny. He made each one feel important. Most of the scholarships were granted to young people who had overcome major obstacles in their lives and indeed that was one of the criteria, and one Dad could relate to.”
This ability to make people feel special was also felt by athletes who participated in the Games. Michael and Nancy Shoemaker have participated in the Huntsman World Senior Games for 20 years. They met John Morgan on a couple of occasions and were impressed not only by his accomplishments, but his humility and the quiet way he had of building the confidence of everyone around. “It was a great honor to meet Mr. Morgan,” recounts Michael. “He was dedicated to what he believed in and accomplished so much that benefited others. He was the founder of a wonderful organization, and I have nothing but respect for what he did and who he was.” Whether 18 or 80 years old, it was always John’s goal to lift others up, to inspire them and give them the confidence to reach their greatest potential.
“When I started working with the Games 15 years ago, John welcomed me into the Games’ family with open arms,” added Kyle M Case, current CEO of the Games. “He not only made me feel like he believed in me, he also made me want to be the kind of person that he believed in. He did that for everyone.” John served as President and Chairman of the Board of Trustees throughout the duration of his life. He welcomed each board member with love and kindness and helped steer the Games at every single board meeting, right up until the end.
At the age of 94, John still refused to retire. His children helped him move into an apartment close to his work in downtown Salt Lake City. His daughter Anne writes, “From the age of 94 to 96, he continued to walk to work to The Walker Center where he has been the longest reigning tenant in that iconic landmark for over 60 years. Many of the homeless people on the street knew him by name and often accompanied him to work, guarding and protecting him all the way. Dad had the gift of considering other people’s perspectives and if necessary, implementing changes within himself in hopes of becoming a better person.”
When asked what John Wunderli would miss most about his friend John Morgan, he replied without hesitation, “His optimism. It was a big part of who he was, and it worked 90% of the time!” It’s true. John Morgan always believed in the promise of tomorrow and the goodness of people. He continually imagined, and then put into action, ways to make life better for his family, his community, his country and the world. The Huntsman World Senior Games is one result of John’s efforts. We will miss him as we celebrate our 35th year. But, we hope to make John proud as we continue the mission of fostering worldwide peace, health and friendship this year and far into the future.
Originally published in TIMEOUT Magazine, Spring, 2022