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Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
President Thomas S. Monson (center right) and his wife Sister Frances J. Monson (center left) as well as their daughter Anne Dibb talk with Ira Fulton, a major supporter of Utah Valley University. They got together after President and Sister Monson received Honorary Degrees at UVU's Commencement ceremonies in 2009.
I feel very blessed. My dad was a good man who worked hard and provided all the necessary needs for us to live. —Ira Fulton

The campaign was over.

Near the end of 1999, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley addressed a group of donors and fundraisers at a dinner that marked the end of Brigham Young University’s Lighting the Way fundraising campaign. The goal had originally been $250 million, but they smashed that target by bringing in $380 million.

The prophet congratulated everyone for their efforts. But an Arizona businessman in attendance recalls President Hinckley lamenting that they hadn't hit $400 million in the effort to help BYU and BYU-Hawaii enhance their quality of education in the next century.

The businessman, Ira A. Fulton, didn't hesitate to respond.

“I walked right up there. I said, ‘You got it,’ ” Fulton said. “You got the $20 million you wanted."

“He looked over at (former BYU President) Merrill J. Bateman and said, ‘Is he for real?' ” Fulton recalled with a laugh. “President Bateman said, ‘He’s for real.’ ”

"To raise money for education is one of the most fun things I am doing," the 83-year-old said with a grin. "All they can do is say no, but that means I will come back until they say yes."

Fulton is a generous man. The chairman of one of Arizona's largest home builders, Fulton Homes, has given hundreds of millions of dollars to the LDS Church, several universities and other charitable causes through the Fulton Family Foundation. As a result, his name is a fixture on many campuses. Fulton plans to continue funding scholarships and spearheading projects like BYU's new engineering building for years to come.

In a recent trip to Salt Lake City, Fulton granted the Deseret News an interview in which he talked about his life, important lessons he's learned, his business and charitable pursuits, his greatest accomplishments and personal principles of success.

Fulton was born Nov. 12, 1931, in Tempe, Arizona, to hard-working Latter-day Saint parents David and Myrtie Fulton. He was the baby of a large family, and his parents taught him vital lessons at a young age during the Great Depression.

Fulton said his mother's first husband died, leaving her to raise several children in the 1920s. His parents met in 1928.

As they raised him, they taught him to always do his best.

"I didn't realize how great my dad was. He raised another man's kids," Fulton said. "I feel very blessed. My dad was a good man who worked hard and provided all the necessary needs for us to live."

Fulton learned to work. At age 6, he began washing dishes at his mother's café. In addition to learning to work hard, he noticed how his mother kindly gave people food even though they couldn't afford to pay. He never forgot what she said.

"Mom, we're poor, too," he told her.

"But Ira, they are hungry," Myrtie told her son.

"I shut up because she's my mom," Fulton said. "I learned the principle of giving, and I didn't even know it. My mother was a very generous lady."

At age 11, Fulton became a newspaper carrier for the Arizona Republic and eventually took over the paper's largest route while also managing a number of odd jobs.

Fulton went on to play football at Arizona State before mastering the art of acquiring struggling businesses and transforming them into winners. He's owned auto parts stores, tire stores, factories, computer companies and insurance businesses. He made his millions by selling these businesses at the height of their value. For example, he purchased a men's clothing chain in 1976 and sold the business in 1995 for millions. The $225 million in revenue from that transaction launched Fulton Homes in Arizona.

According to Fulton, most of what he has made — "60 cents of every dollar" — he has given away.

One decade ago, Fulton came in at No. 42 on Bloomberg Businessweek's 50 most generous philanthropists. He has served on many boards and committees over the years and given large gifts to BYU and other church-owned universities; Arizona State University; the University of Arizona; the University of Utah and the Huntsman Cancer Institute; Utah Valley University and others.

His joy comes when he sees students succeed.

"The reward comes when I see these people graduate, get a job, get married and get off and running," Fulton said.

Last year, Fulton, the namesake of the BYU college of engineering and technology, pledged to provide a dollar-for-dollar donation match up to $1 million for a new engineering building, which will cost about $80 million. So far, more than 13,700 people have contributed to the cause.

"I like to match because it requires people to give something; then their contribution is magnified," Fulton said.

Fulton's efforts and generosity have influenced organizations and individuals, according to Alan Moore, a major gifts officer with LDS Philanthropies at BYU.

"Talk to any of the deans and they will tell you Ira has made a tremendous impact on their college," Moore said. "Ira has personally influenced me to be more generous. I’m continually inspired by his desire to give. He has a big heart. He loves to give and see the joy it brings as students are able to reach their dreams of a university education."

When asked to share his greatest accomplishment, Fulton spoke of marrying his wife, Mary Lou. As a college football player and student at ASU, Fulton dated many girls and enjoyed being a bachelor with a steady income. Then he met Mary Lou, and his mindset immediately changed. They have now been married for more than 60 years.

"I married the greatest gal in the world. My greatest accomplishment is that I was worthy of her," Fulton said. "I get goosebumps and chills to think I might have lost her."

Another accomplishment for Fulton is his membership in the LDS faith. The gospel of Jesus Christ has been the greatest influence of kindness and charity in his life, he said.

"The gospel, in my humble opinion, is everything," Fulton said.

One of the gospel principles Fulton takes most seriously is the law of tithing.

"As long as you pay it, people don’t understand that one-tenth is such a small amount in order to have so many tremendous blessings," Fulton said.

If there is a message for readers, Fulton said it would be to share talents and resources to bless others.

"The Lord gives me a lot of blessings and talents," Fulton said. "If I use them properly, I make a lot of money. The way I can pay him back is by educating the people around me that are less fortunate so they can have their dream.

"I don’t regret one penny of it. The only thing I regret is I can’t give more."

Email: ttoone@deseretnews.com, Twitter: tbtoone