SALT LAKE CITY — If anyone could be excused for kicking back on the porch and basking in the glow of what’s already happened in his life, Gary Neeleman, who turned 80 this year, certainly could.
As a newsman, Gary spent 27 years with United Press International, the last 10 as vice president over Latin America, back when wire services ruled the Earth. After that, he spent another 17 years with the Los Angeles Times Syndicate as worldwide vice president. If you added up all trips he’s taken, he’d have enough frequent flier miles to fly to Pluto. If you added up all the people he’s met and made friends with, you could populate a small country.
As a parent, he and his wife, Rose, have raised a lawyer (John, a partner in the Seattle firm of Lane Powell), an airline owner (David, who started Azul Airlines in Brazil after previously launching JetBlue in the U.S.), a resort manager (Julie, who runs the family’s 10,000-acre Zion Ponderosa Resort next to Zion National Park), a doctor (Stephen, head of trauma surgery at American Fork Hospital and founder of Health Equity, the country’s first and largest health savings account company), a mom to quadruplets and real estate broker (Pamela), and two entrepreneurs (Lisa, who runs a specialty sweatshirt/T-shirt business in Draper, and Mark, who has launched both a home security business and a bamboo supply business in Brazil).
But it’s not in Gary’s nature, or Rose’s, to spend much time in the past.
Not even when Gary’s profession — selling newspapers — is going the way of the typewriter and the buggy whip.
Not even when all the kids are grown and successful and making it on their own.
And not even after two debilitating health problems have made life a lot more complicated than it ever used to be.
Eleven years ago, Gary tripped while jogging and dislocated both of his retinas, severely hindering his eyesight.
Then in November 2013 he suffered a stroke that put him in a wheelchair.
Gary’s response to the stroke was the same as his response to the eye problems and the newspaper decline: Figure out a way around them.
He employed a no-nonsense physical therapist who put him through the paces like he was doing two-a-days trying to make the Dallas Cowboys.
“He told me the difference between a therapist and a terrorist is that you can negotiate with a terrorist,” says Gary.
He was out of his wheelchair within a month. Nine months later, signs of the stroke are all but gone, and he and Rose are as busy — and even more inseparable — as ever, traveling here, there and everywhere while maintaining their independent news brokerage business, Neeleman International Consulting, headquartered in downtown Salt Lake City. (Rose does all the driving, and anything Gary needs to read, Rose reads it to him. She is his eyes and his wheels).
Meanwhile, Gary continues to serve as honorary consul for Brazil in the state of Utah — a liaison position that helps Brazilians living here negotiate visa, residency requirements, court proceedings and other hurdles. He’s been doing that since 2002, with Rose the ever-constant at his side.
Gary and Rose met at Salt Lake City’s South High School when he was 17 and she was 16. They interrupted their relationship when Gary served an LDS mission to Brazil, but only just. Thirteen days after he returned home they were married.
That was 57 years ago. Their seven children started coming soon thereafter. John, the first, was born in the United States but quickly found himself in Brazil when Gary, thanks to the fluent Portuguese he learned on his mission and the experience he gained while working for KSL-TV and the Deseret News, accepted a position as a correspondent there for UPI. He was just 23. The next three kids, David, Julie and Pamela, were born in Brazil, after which the family returned to Utah, where Stephen, Lisa and Mark came along, and Gary flew up the UPI management ladder, not topping out until he was the wire service bureau’s chief for all of Central and South America.
He left UPI in 1985 to work for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and stayed there until 2002, when it was bought by the Tribune Company. That led to the creation of Neeleman International Consulting, allowing Gary and Rose to represent and advise clients — such as the Washington Post Writers Group, Bloomberg News Service, Newscom and Mainstream Data, and Bonnier Magazines of Sweden — as they continue to travel the world.
At that same juncture, came the request from the Brazilian government to become Brazilian honorary consul in Utah.
A dozen years later, Gary and Rose haven’t cut out any of it. Their schedule this fall included promoting “Tracks in the Amazon,” the book they co-wrote about the building of the Madeira-Mamore railroad in Brazil; a September business trip to South America; and a trip to Brazil in November with Gov. Gary Herbert to explore business opportunities there for Utah.
During an afternoon interlude in the offices of Neeleman International Consulting, the Deseret News sat down with Gary, and Rose, for a conversation about a life as an international newsman and diplomat that has no end in sight.
DN: Congratulations on entering your ninth decade. Where does all the energy come from?
GN: That’s a genetic thing, I think. People have pointed out that at my age, to be able to get on an airplane and fly and land and go right into meetings, is amazing. But in my business relationships, I’ve always made it a point — and I learned this from the Brazilians — that when you go into a meeting with another human being, it isn’t just pao pao queijo queijo (bread, bread, cheese, cheese). You take a personal interest in each person. And that seems to make all the difference.
DN: Newspapering has been your life. What, to you, is the best thing about newspapers?
GN: Newspapers are tremendous. I can’t read them now because of my eyes. But I can see the headlines and what I want to hear more about and Rose reads them to me. You get snippets of what’s going on in the world from the TV, but newspapers do a much better job of informing and clarifying. Newspapers give the story behind the story; they fill you in on everything you might see superficially. For example, the recent incident in St. Louis (involving the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager) wouldn’t have been nearly as explosive if instead of being disseminated so quickly by other media it had been written out first and clarified in the newspapers.
DN: What do you see as the future of newspapers?
GN: I think there’s always going to be a place for newspapers, because of what they can offer. But I honestly don’t know what that’s going to be. It’s the industry itself that is to blame for the shape it’s in. I think back to the days when the Internet started, and I’d ask what I should charge people for putting (newspaper) content on the Internet. And the company line was, well, that’s never going to make any money, charge 5 percent extra. It should have been 95 percent. Everyone just kept giving their stuff away. Only the New York Times did anything where you had to pay to read their content. We gave away the soul of the newspaper business, just gave it away. And it happened so fast. 2005 was the biggest advertising year in newspaper history, and here we are in 2014 and most newspapers are on their back, just gasping.
DN: You’ve been Brazilian honorary consul for the state of Utah since 2002. Why have you continued for so long?
GN: (Laughs) I remember when I was offered the position and Ambassador Pimentel, who was the consul general in Los Angeles, said: “Let me tell you your job description: You’re not going to get money for this service, you’re not going to be reimbursed for anything, but what you will get are a Brazilian flag, a brasao (a Brazilian coat of arms) and 10,000 headaches.” I later told him that description was accurate except he was wrong on one thing. He asked what that one thing was. It wasn’t 10,000 headaches, I told him, it was 20,000. But we’ve loved helping where we could. We have a deep affection for Brazil and we feel that the Brazilian people are the best thing going for Brazil. They’re just the best. Many of them here struggle, trying to find a path in life, and we’re trying to help provide some answers for that.
DN: You consistently use the pronoun “we.” Why is that?
GN: Rose and I have been a tandem pretty much from the start and it has made life very, very, very happy for us. We are best friends and together in everything we do. We have a real affection and respect for each other. We like each other. I know her skills and talents better than anybody and she’s amazing, and she likes what she sees in me.
DN: You two have raised seven successful and very diverse children. Looking back, what are some of the things you could tell other parents that worked for you?
GN: One of the things we’ve always believed was that you expose your children to everything you possibly can to give them the richness of that experience. We’ve taken them everywhere we could. When they were all in school, we bought a big GMC rally van and we’d put all the kids in the day they got out of school and they’d travel with us until the day they went back. Rose ate more Kentucky Fried Chicken in the park with our kids while I was at the newspapers and television stations in small towns than any woman on the planet. And when I was in town, we never ate dinner until I got home. Sometimes that was 8 or 9 at night, but the family always waited. And when I was traveling, I called home every night, without exception. I think things like that made a difference. I think we helped make them self-sufficient and created in them a curiosity for life. And then when we got through with the kids we started on our grandkids. We now have 34 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren, and we’re close to all of them. Out oldest grandkids have been every place you can think of.
DN: Any chance you’ll ever retire?
GN: No plans for that. Life goes on at a frantic pace, and that’s how we like it. But we feel we are most certainly in the golden years and hope and pray that these years will last for a long, long time to come.
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