SALT LAKE CITY — Six years ago, 55-years-old and fresh off yet another capitalistic triumph of epic proportion, Alan Rudd was looking for the next big thing. What to do? What to do? When it came to business, his life was full of the sort of successes they write books about. People didn't call him Midas, but they could have. Everything he touched turned to platinum.
Ernst & Young named him Entrepreneur of the Year not once, but twice, first in 1999 when he sold a company named Vinca Corp. for $92 million that had been on the endangered business species list when he took it over three years earlier, and again in 2004 for turning the software firm Arkona into a nationwide sensation.
In late 2006 he'd just sold Arkona and was looking around for the next rung up the entrepreneurial ladder, if there was one, when an old friend, Billy Casper, the golfing icon, called him on the phone and asked if he'd like to join him on a tour to Israel.
Alan had never been to the Holy Land. Neither had his wife, Debra. So they signed on for a couple weeks of what they assumed would be rest, relaxation and re-energizing.
After visiting the usual sites — the Temple Mount, the Wailing Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Mount of Olives — the tour went to a place 22 miles southwest of modern Jerusalem, a dusty, fledgling archaeological site seemingly in the middle of nowhere called Beit Lehi.
And there Alan Rudd found it.
His next big thing.
He didn't realize it at the time. His introduction to the place that would soon begin draining his fortune was nothing, if not subdued. It was Sunday when they visited so the group, all of them members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, held an impromptu church meeting at the site, where Alan was given a cram course on the area's history:
How its name translates to "House of Lehi"
How on its walls there can be found the earliest recorded inscriptions of "Jerusalem" and "Jehovah," dating to more than 600 years before the birth of Christ.
How it is where Samson is believed to have smitten 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey, and near the valley of Elah where David slew Goliath with a slingshot.
And how it could also be the place, some theorize, where the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi resided before fleeing to America.
The stories energized Alan. Upon returning to Utah he couldn't stop thinking about them. The following spring he took his family — he and Debra have 11 children — plus his brother Gary and sister Elaine to Beit Lehi so they could see what he'd seen and feel what he'd felt.
Try as he might, he couldn't let go of the thought that he should get involved and help.
First discovered in 1961 when the Israeli military was building a road, excavations had been going on at Beit Lehi off and on ever since. Utahns Glenn Kimber and his father-in-law, the late Cleon Skousen, spearheaded many of the early efforts with the help of their Israeli friend and one-time University of Utah doctoral student Joseph Ginat. Kimber had started a foundation to help fund the work, but in 2007 it was floundering.
Alan turned to his older brother Gary for advice. "My brother's a CPA, very conservative, very wise. He usually talks me out of doing stupid things," he says. "I wanted him to talk me out of this. And then he talked me into it. He said there is something very special there; you can't walk away. My sister said the same thing."
So instead of starting the next monument to capitalism, Alan Rudd, along with his brother Gary, formed the Beit Lehi Foundation in 2008, dedicated to excavating in full the enormous archaeological site, where experts estimate less than a tenth has been touched so far.
Over the past six years, the Rudds' foundation has poured nearly $1 million into the work, capital that has paid for the full-time services of noted archaeologist Oren Gutfeld of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, supplied wages for Israeli archaeology students to live in tents on site and paved the way for students and professors from Utah Valley University to travel to Beit Lehi and survey the site with the latest 3D and GPS technology.
Within just the last year, new digs have uncovered a tomb belonging to Salome, believed to be the mother of apostles James and John and the woman who was with Mary at the crucifixion and at Jesus's tomb; a columbarium, or underground vault, with thousands of niches for raising turtle doves; and dozens more inscriptions on the walls, including additional references to Jesus.
"What we've found, and what we're finding, leaves no doubt that there was a Christ, that he lived, that he was real, and that he mattered to the people of Beit Lehi," says Alan.
Does he worry about the money? Only every day. "I have to look at the financial aspects all the time," he says. "But so far, money miraculously has always been there. Even during a very difficult time from 2008 to 2011, investments I've made did well enough that it's been able to keep going."
It is not in his nature to ask for help, but he knows what donations to the foundation can mean. "If we had twice as much money we'd spend twice as much time there," he says.
(If you'd like to donate, or take a virtual tour of Beit Lehi, go to www.beitlehi.com).
"Sometimes I don't know whether to laugh or cry," says Alan, a man who has spent his life in ventures that bring in piles of cash instead of the other way around. "But I can't leave."
Says his wife Debra, nodding her head sympathetically, "It's a feeling that's there, it's not just dirt. I don't know what it is exactly. But it's good. Yeah, it's good."
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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