Retiring from the mansion

Karen Newton has overseen everything from the governor's Jell-O to Chinese color preferences

Posted: Sunday, January 15, 2006

For 15 years, Karen Newton has been a den mother at the Alaska Governor's Mansion, for three executives and everyone from grandkids to ghosts.

Her official title is executive residence manager and assistant to the first lady. The job duties include making sure Russian guests have vodka, that no white flowers are presented to Chinese dignitaries accustomed to seeing them associated with death, and that Gov. Frank Murkowski gets Jell-O after dinner.

"You can see around the dinner table, everyone else will be having a fancy dessert, but Gov. Murkowski always gets Jell-O," she said.

Newton turned in her keys Friday to retire with her husband, Michael, in Nevada, live closer to her four daughters on the West Coast, and possibly take poker dealing lessons.

"I wanted to try something that was so far removed from what I've been doing," she said.

For her retirement party on Friday night, house chef Stefani Marnon baked Newton a cake in the shape of a slot machine and cookies that resembled playing cards.

Newton said she will miss her supporting staff and her mission of chronicling the mansion's history.

The residence manager won't miss the annual open-house Christmas parties for thousands of guests, requiring planning that starts each June, she said.

Often, Newton receives little notice at all for gatherings.

"It doesn't phase her at 10 a.m. to get a call from Frank saying, 'I'm having 12 over for lunch,'" first lady Nancy Murkowski said.

People often ask her to write a book about her behind-the-scenes experiences with the Hickel, Knowles and Murkowski families, but each time she declines.

"These people have trusted me" with their private lives, she said.

Funny moments include a puppy belonging to the Knowleses that had a bad habit of grabbing food trays from the reception room table, she said.

And somewhere upstairs, Newton said, she believes the ghost of a former governor still resides. Every once in a while, a large imprint will form on one of the beds. "It seems like a large person was sitting there," Newton said of an outline left on the bed days after the last person slept there.

Picking a favorite governor or first lady would be like choosing a favorite among her daughters, Newton said.

Part of her responsibility is to make sure the first family's life at home isn't as hectic as at the office.

"One of the governors, I knew he was not going to be in a good mood that day," Newton said. She placed a sugar packet inside the man's suit pocket with a note reading, "This is to sweeten up your day."

• Andrew Petty can be reached at

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