Gregory J. Newell, United States Ambassador to Sweden: The Art of Family Life


Ambassador Greg Newell does not exactly fit the typical profile of a United States ambassador to a foreign country.

At thirty-six, he became the nation’s youngest ambassador. Traditionally, U. S. ambassadors are distinguished, gray-haired gentlemen, often in their fifties, sixties, or seventies. But his age didn’t surprise people in the U. S. State Department. Before his appointment to Sweden in October 1985, he was the youngest Assistant Secretary of State in U. S. history, heading U. S. delegations to some sixty countries.

The Swedes were surprised by his age, but they were even more surprised to discover that the new ambassador and his wife, Candilyn, then twenty-eight, had a young family of four children—David, six; Kendall, five; Catherine, three; and Michael, one. A fifth child, Mattson, was born in Sweden three weeks after the family arrived there. It seemed the Swedes were not just getting a new ambassador—they were the proud hosts to a young, and by Swedish standards, very large, family. The Newells became a sort of living museum of American—and LDS—family life.

Sister Newell was reared as a member of the Church. Her husband, a convert at age ten, was taught the gospel in Iowa along with his family when friends introduced them to the Church.

“The Swedish people have been very warm and responsive to our children,” says Sister Newell. “They consider our youngest son to be theirs. People on the street ask me about him. Swedes traditionally bring a gift of flowers or candy to a home when they visit, and they often bring us presents for the children.”

The children participate visibly in embassy life, says Sister Newell. “Our children often greet our guests at the door with flowers. Like most Primary children, they love to sing, so they frequently sing for our guests. If we don’t have the children there to greet people, the guests feel disappointed.

“They can be wonderfully polite children, but also very human and normal. Once they were giving presents to visiting royalty and had chosen to give a black toy taxicab to a princess, to remind her of her time spent in England. As they went to give the gift to her, Michael, who was then two, grabbed it and ran away with it. It ended up in his matchbox car collection. Fortunately, the princess thought it was amusing to have him run with the taxi, and was very gracious about it.”

Despite their public life and demands on their time, the Newells make an effort to spend time together as a family. “It’s understood in Sweden that our family does not accept invitations on Sunday or on Monday night unless the whole family is involved,” says Brother Newell. “I realized when I was Assistant Secretary of State that when I finished that job, no one would remember a year after I had gone that I had even been Assistant Secretary of State. That tells me where my priorities should be. I believe a mother’s first place is in the home, as is the father’s.”

In addition to the example of Latter-day Saint family life that the Newells have brought to Sweden, they also brought a fine collection of American art centered on the theme of family. Each of America’s ambassadorial residences has an “art in embassies” collection, which mirrors some aspect of American life. The art is generally borrowed from museums, corporations, private collections, commercial galleries, or from the artists themselves. Each collection reflects the taste and personality of the individual ambassador.

“When I learned of my appointment by the president to be ambassador to Sweden, my wife and I knew that we would have the opportunity to select an art collection for the residence in Stockholm,” says Brother Newell. “Because of our family orientation, we decided to play to this strength and center our art around family values. Family life, bonding, and commitment are universal, whether in Sweden or Africa or South America. Virtually every man and woman has a strong desire to identify with and be tied to a family unit.”

With that theme, the Newells worked as a team to find the type of art they wanted in their future residence. They decided to look in the western states, where art collections had received less international exposure than in the East. Brigham Young University and the Museum of Church History and Art proved to be good sources.

Thirty-seven pieces of art are included in the collection, all on loan to the residence. Included in the collection are works by fifteen artists: Wulf Barsch, Jennifer J. Christensen, E. Irving Couse, Jeanne Lundberg Clarke, Alvin Gittins, Florence P. Hansen, Annette Kaplan, Judith Mehr, Gary Lee Price, Blaine B. Richards, Richard Richards, Paul Salisbury, Adolph Sehring, Dennis Smith, and Douglas Fenn Wilson.

The artworks have generated considerable comments from visitors, says Brother Newell. “We’ve had diplomats in the residence from over seventy countries, including the Soviet Union and other eastern bloc countries. We’ve had thousands and thousands of Swedes in the residence, including many people who are not terribly committed to religious values because of their traditions. Yet the art communicates a message that is very strong, much appreciated, and respected by most visitors who come through. It’s more than art. It’s a message of family strength and values.”

One painting that elicits unusual attention from guests is by LDS artist Judith Mehr. Her Family Garden portrays a family working together in a garden plot. It’s the centerpiece of the collection, because of its size and its message. “Guests very often ask if that’s our family being portrayed, because it looks very much like ours,” says Sister Newell.

Another painting that people comment on is Family Dessert, by Jeanne Lundberg Clarke, another LDS artist. “One reason we selected this painting is because Stockholm is dark for much of the year and the painting presents a rainbow of colors,” says Brother Newell. “The mother is nourishing the family with fruits, and the father is in the center, helping train the children. There is a toddler playing on the floor, and a grandmother is also depicted in the family circle, so you have a strong message about family unity, solidarity, and responsibility across generations.”

American Navajo Home Life, by LDS artist Paul Salisbury, is another favorite, especially with European visitors who are usually curious about life in the American West. The painting focuses on American Indian life in a mountain setting.

“Dennis Smith’s three bronze sculptures are admired by all visitors, including the Soviets who have been in residence,” says Brother Newell. “Soviets have a very strong, lively emotional attachment to their children. In one of the pieces, Dennis Smith’s models sat on an antique Swedish bench that dates to the 1850s, so it’s especially appropriate in the collection.”

Florence Hansen’s sculptures also draw comments from visitors. The parent-child interaction in the sculptures communicates a powerful message of family love. A small bronze sculpture by Sister Hansen, titled Immigrant Family, is a particularly significant addition to the collection, says Brother Newell. “It shows a family that has experienced trial and deprivation, which represents the 25 percent of the Swedish population who immigrated to the United States in the mid to late 1800s. The Swedish trunk included in the sculptures helps convey the solidarity and strength of these immigrant families.”

This particular sculpture has added meaning to Brother Newell. Both Brother and Sister Newell have a Swedish heritage. In 1869 his great-great-grandmother brought her Swedish trunk to the United States when she immigrated. Ambassador Newell brought the chest back to Sweden with him when he assumed his responsibilities in Stockholm.

It was when journalists asked why the Newells had chosen a Swedish name for their new baby that the family’s Swedish heritage became widely known. Swedes have had a strong interest for centuries in genealogical research, so it was out of natural curiosity that the journalists had the Newell family genealogy traced. “In a short time they were able to put our genealogy together on the Swedish side back thirteen generations. They also asked us if we had any living relatives here. We said we knew of none,” says Brother Newell.

“But through their diligence they discovered my fourth cousin, who is eighty years old. In going through the photos that accompanied the news story on our genealogy, I saw one that we had had in our family album for about 125 years, but we didn’t know who the person in the photo was. This newspaper printed the same photograph. We found out it was the grandfather of our newly-discovered fourth cousin. My great-great-grandmother had spent her last year in Sweden in the house of that man,” says Brother Newell.

Last summer the Newells visited the area of Sweden where their ancestors had lived and found the house in which Brother Newell’s great-great-great-grandparents were married in 1821. They also met about 125 distant relatives of whom they had known nothing before they came to Sweden.

“We’ve found that Swedes are growing more concerned about their families and children,” says Sister Newell. “Here in Sweden people are making the choice to go without worldly luxuries in order to have time with their children. Most families have only two children, and they put a lot of effort into their families.”

Switching from a nice home in the suburbs to a palatial residence complete with six full-time servants and seven part-time servants could have caused quite a disruption in the Newell’s normal family life. But they have made decisions about how to deal with that.

“We’ve tried to keep things as normal as one can with the children,” says Brother Newell. “We have about eight or nine rooms in the residence that we keep ourselves—the maids are there only occasionally. The children make their own beds, carry out their own trash, and have assignments for cleaning and washing windows and the like. We came from that sort of environment, and we will return to it.”

Being an ambassador is a complex job that involves far more than the smiling and shaking hands that the general public sees. An ambassador is the personal representative of the President of the United States in a foreign land. “I deal with quite a varied menu,” says Brother Newell. “Subjects I deal with on a daily basis are things such as export control of technology that has industrial and military application. I deal with atomic energy, with Swedish and American business and industry, the political side of our bilateral relationships where we don’t find ourselves in agreement, South Africa, Central America, disarmament, the Middle East, narcotics, terrorism—these are all topics I’ve worked with recently.”

The ambassador is the high priests group leader in the Stockholm First Ward and is also a home teacher—an opportunity that lets him exit the world of diplomacy and enter the world of normal Latter-day Saint Swedish life. On their first Sunday in Stockholm, the Newells met with their bishop and told him that they wanted to carry their share of responsibilities in the ward. “I home teach six Swedish families,” says Brother Newell. “All live in very normal situations in modest quarters. This gives us a different perspective about the culture of Sweden, as opposed to the diplomatic and public projection that the diplomat would normally get,” says Brother Newell.

“We participate fully in the ward, just as we did when we were living in Washington D. C. and I had the demanding position as Assistant Secretary of State. I was in the bishopric for three of those years, when my assignment was with the largest bureau in the Department of State, with offices in Montreal, New York, Paris, Geneva, Rome, Vienna, and Nairobi. My assignment had attached to it responsibility for developing policy for ninety-six multilateral institutions. All of that was a great intellectual, political, and administrative challenge.”

Brother Newell became involved in affairs of state in 1972, after returning from a mission to France, Belgium, and Luxemberg. At age twenty-two he was appointed as a field representative for U. S. President Richard M. Nixon. In 1975 he was named staff assistant to President Gerald R. Ford. From 1979 to 1980, he worked as deputy administrative assistant to the governor of Pennsylvania. Then, in 1981, he was appointed special assistant to President Reagan.

He met his wife while on a speaking engagement at Brigham Young University, talking about his experiences as staff assistant to President Ford. “She was a student, and I saw her in the crowd,” he says. “She gave the closing prayer, and I asked who she was. I called her, we saw each other every day that week, were engaged on Friday, and married seven weeks later.”

Brother Newell’s career has been exciting—even glamorous—but also demanding in terms of time, hard work, and sacrifice.

“In Washington, in particular, my nights consisted of about four hours of sleep. In order to get everything done, my professional week ended about midnight on Friday. Then, on Saturday, I would normally take over responsibilities in the home—washing and cleaning and bathing the children, to give my wife a needed break for music, reading, or free time. I recall many times on Saturday after having finished the routines at home, going out at 11:00 P.M. to do the grocery shopping. Sunday was for family and church.”

Sister Newell has learned to manage her time carefully, too, given her responsibilities as a mother and an ambassador’s wife. It’s a very busy life, but her family is always top priority.

“Her role as ambassador’s wife is very similar to mine in a public sense,” says Brother Newell. “We’re invited to most public events. We’ve had 760 official events in the first year here. My wife accompanies me to about every public event every other week. Every odd week she stays with the children, so there is stability at home.”

Sister Newell also administers the residence. She supervises the domestic staff and is responsible for the substantial budget necessary to run the home. She also serves as a room mother for her first grader at the international school and does a lot culturally and educationally throughout Sweden. A concert pianist, Candilyn Newell has performed on Swedish television and at many other events. A television program about the family and American music, featuring Sister Newell, is in the planning stage. Sister Newell also serves as ward music director and a visiting teacher.

Though she was reasonably organized before, she has found that the demands of embassy life have made her even more so. “It’s a much richer, and more challenging, experience than I had anticipated,” says Sister Newell. “I’ve met so many interesting guests, from the king and prime minister to the general citizenry. My husband and I work very much as a team in meeting our responsibilities here.”

She loves Sweden, and upon first arriving there told her husband it didn’t seem like a foreign country to her at all. “The gospel has kept us happy and has given us perspective in these new experiences. Otherwise, it might have been a very heady environment to be in,” she says.

“We have a wonderful ward; the Saints here are very faithful. There’s a feeling you have in the Church that no matter who you are or where you come from, when you go to church you’re home. We felt that way the first day we walked in here. I’m learning Swedish gradually, though my husband has been tutored and speaks Swedish quite well. The missionaries help translate for me in church meetings. Though intellectually I don’t understand everything in our meetings, spiritually I’m blessed for being there.”

Through the excitement of diplomatic circles and the glamour of living in a fascinating country, the Newells find that family and the Church provide stability and direction in their lives.

Not long ago Brother Newell suggested to his wife that she take a couple of days and go to Paris, just to have some time for herself, before they attended a meeting there together. He cared for the children at home. While changing the diaper of one child on the grand staircase, the feeling came over him strongly that there was nothing he could be doing in life more important than attending to the need of that child, because he was giving service, care, and attention to him.

“Before, I had help so my wife could have a break. Now, I understand more about simple service. I help now because it gives me an opportunity to do something kind and tender and loving for my children. Family is what counts in life,” he says.

[photos] Photography by Micael Engstrom

[photos] Far left: The Newells on board the Chapman on the Baltic Sea. (From left) Brother Gregory Newell holding Michael, David, Kendall (above), Catherine, Sister Candilyn Newell holding Mattson. Left: Ambassador Newell answers questions during a press interview. Right: Family Garden, by Judith Mehr, is a centerpiece in the art collection at the ambassador’s residence in Stockholm. Guests often ask if the Newell family is the one represented in the painting.

[photo] The Newell children participate visibly in embassy life, frequently entertaining guests such as United States’ first lady Nancy Reagan (seated at right).

[photo] American Navajo Home Life, by Paul Salisbury—on loan from the BYU Museum collection—is a favorite of European visitors curious about life in the American West. Dr. and Mrs. Hans Zetterberg (left) and Ingrid Carlsson, wife of Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson, chat in front of the painting.

[photo] The Newells try to keep life as normal as possible for their children and place top priority on spending time as a family.

[photo] Jeanne Lundberg Clarke’s colorful Family Dessert conveys a strong message of family unity, solidarity, and responsibility across generations. A former Miss Universe, Yvonne Ryding, stands before the painting.

[photo] Jacob Palmstierna, president of Sweden’s largest bank, and Ambassador Newell admire Dennis Smith’s Morning Ribbons, a sculpture on loan from the artist. Three of Brother Smith’s bronze sculptures are included in the embassy collection.

[photo] Count and Countess Peder Bonde study Gary Lee Price’s Jesus of Nazareth, one of the thirty-seven pieces the Newells chose for the embassy art collection. Many of these works are on loan from BYU, the Church Museum of History and Art, and LDS artists.

Kathleen Lubeck, manager of magazines services for Church Public Communications, is a member of the Young Women general board. She lives in the Granger Eighteenth Ward, Salt Lake Granger Stake.