TO JON HUNTSMAN, the 53-year-old chairman and chief executive of Huntsman Chemical Co., the fun is not in accumulating money but in distributing it to worthwhile causes. Huntsman's wealth, made from his worldwide plastics manufacturing business, has been estimated at $450 million.

Huntsman, a trim, charismatic, well-spoken man, is a modern philanthropist. He is also eminently approachable and down to earth, as many freely attest. In the past three years he has given more than $25 million to various individuals, causes and institutions - about half to Utah hospitals, charities, universities and homeless centers, and about half to other parts of the world.He is also the epitome of the American dream - a self-made man whose fortune was accumulated only in the past 10 years. His childhood goes back to modest beginnings in Blackfoot, Idaho, and Fillmore, Utah. He lived in student housing as late as his teenage years while his father struggled through graduate school.

He never envisioned that he would become wealthy. "It is like a fairy tale."

During a conversation in his well-appointed office on the 20th floor of Eagle Gate Tower, with its panoramic view of Salt Lake City, he seemed unhurried and relaxed.

"And it wouldn't bother me a bit to return to my roots. I'm very comfortable with people who are struggling - making sacrifices. And it's been a great joy, in a modest way, to try to help some of those who still live very much as I was raised."

Huntsman doesn't understand those who don't give.

"Even when Karen and I started out in marriage 31 years ago, we made $222 a month as a young Navy ensign. We would give a certain percentage to those on the ship who were struggling - and we got through life very fine in those days. It's a great feeling - it just makes me feel good."

And if his financial security were to be threatened, that would be taken in stride. "It's been a great honor, and if something happened and we lost the modest amount of wealth that we have today, then I would feel greatly honored that we've tried to share what we have up to this point."

Yet Huntsman also feels badly that he can't do everything.

The problem in the distribution of wealth is that there are always many more requests than can be honored. Huntsman admits to having turned "some folks down - and that's heartbreaking. It's very difficult for me to say no to people."

Because the requests are so numerous - and because his teenage son James was kidnapped in 1987 - it is necessary for Huntsman to travel with elaborate security precautions.

"People sometimes think that financial security is a one-sided blessing, but there are some significant downsides to your children and your family and your own life - and where you can go and how free you really are. I guess that's been a concern I never realized. More and more I see that and feel trapped a little bit by it. I go anywhere I want to go, but people don't know about the security. It's been a running battle between my security people and me."

That's because Huntsman likes to mix with people. For the most part he finds people wherever he travels to be "gracious, very respectful and very kind." That includes his 1,800 employees, for whom he feels an affinity.

"When I go to our factories I go right to the warehouses and the production lines - and it's really a nice relationship with our people. I have a great affection for them."

Huntsman gives almost 100 scholarships a year to his employees' children. Two years ago, he gave trips to the Caribbean to all his employees - whether they were truck drivers, assembly-line workers or executives. Huntsman claims that his employees have made him what he is and so he has an obligation to treat them the same way they've treated him.

Although Huntsman acknowledges that there may be former acquaintances who are less comfortable around him since his financial success, he feels that in his own mind, nothing has changed. Some people, he says, feel the need to accord "a little added respect," or "that they must address you by your last name or something. I just feel very comfortable when they call me Jon."

Huntsman travels a lot in an airplane that functions as an office. "You get accustomed to doing business on the plane. I don't even think about it. There is no break in our stride."

He spends only one or two days a week in his Salt Lake office. During that time he takes care of local problems, then flies out again to meet the needs of his far-flung interests in Taiwan, Thailand, France, Spain, England, Iraq, the Soviet Union, Canada, Texas and Georgia.

Besides his business and humanitarian interests, Huntsman unabashedly considers himself an ambassador of the LDS Church. He believes that people wherever he travels accord him and his family "a healthy respect - for our church and our family and our ethics. They accept us as Americans, but also as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We try to leave a strong positive impression of honesty and integrity."

Even given the turmoil there, he is spending more and more time in the Soviet Union. Quoting his friend and mentor, the late Armand Hammer, Huntsman says, "The Soviet Union is no place for the faint-hearted."

Despite events of the past year, he does not expect overnight miracles.

"It will be a very long transition for the Russians. When President Gorbachev talked to us in Minnesota a year ago, he told us it would take a long time. He said the Soviet Union in 1990 was where the United States was in 1890. He said it would take two generations and enormous patience. It will probably be another 20 or 30 years before we can measure their competitiveness in the world."

In Huntsman's opinion, "The Soviets don't really understand a market economy. They are struggling to understand it. It is a very exciting country but a very poor country. There is no quality control - no sense of pride of workmanship. They are sadly lacking in basic ingredients. They pleaded with us to send specialists. And one of the biggest problems is that the ruble is not convertible to Western currency. It is virtually worthless in international exchanges."

With this pragmatic approach, Huntsman believes economic opportunity in the Soviet Union should be secondary to the nation's economic crisis. "The most important needs are those of the people."

Huntsman has a factory in Moscow, and he will go to Armenia again in February, his sixth trip in the two years since an earthquake devastated a portion of Armenia in December 1988. In June he will go back to dedicate a hospital, an office building and a large apartment complex that will almost double the number of apartments in that region.

He feels keenly the need to stay there and do more. "They are in a sad state economically. The paint, the refrigeration, the quality of clothing, the tastefulness of food - and they know it. Most Americans have left Armenia. We have not. We feel committed. We are the last surviving American relief organization that is still doing what we said we were going to do two years ago. It is important that we not be viewed as short-timers."

In 1988, Huntsman made a brief and controversial run for the Utah governorship - to press for educational and economic reform.

"Right after I got in - within almost hours - I knew I couldn't continue." He felt a deep commitment to his business and to his suppliers and customers around the world. So he and Gov. Norm Bangerter sat down and developed an economic program together, and "the governor focused very heavily on it, and since then we've been to over 200 corporations and visited with them and encouraged them to come to Utah, and many of them have."

Yet Huntsman has no regrets about his brief run. "It was one of the nicest experiences of my life." He was surprised that people from all over the state gave him warm and immediate support - including $350,000 in the first two weeks.

"I was overwhelmed by it."

Nevertheless, he sees no political office in his future - either elective or appointive. "I would really much rather focus on philanthropy, on building our business so we can use the proceeds effectively for good causes. I'm really deeply concerned with that."

While there are many good men and women who can be effective political candidates, he believes himself in a unique position to continue to make a charitable contribution.

"I would not want to mix that with politics. There are too many areas that we've supported financially, and I wouldn't want it to be misconstrued - that we may have done this for political gain. Once you establish yourself in a community you need to be careful that you don't abuse that respect. I've just been grateful that we've been able to carve out our own pathway. For us it's been very rewarding and fulfilling."

But Huntsman has not ruled out public life for his children, whom he has taught about unselfishness. "I would hope that my children and their children could make a significant contribution politically and economically and spiritually - because they will be able to move into different arenas without having to be constrained by financial need. I think that second or third generations as we've seen with other families in America often provide capable public servants."

But Jon Huntsman has found his own niche in life.