The gover­nor who found him­self in Arkansas

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PERSPECTIVE - REX NEL­SON

If you want to un­der­stand the late Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rock­e­feller, don’t go to the state Capi­tol or the Gover­nor’s Man­sion.

Don’t go to the Lit­tle Rock of­fices of the Winthrop Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion or Win­rock In­ter­na­tional.

Friends and aides re­ferred to this giant of a man sim­ply as WR. And to un­der­stand him, you must get out of Lit­tle Rock and head west to Petit Jean Moun­tain where the cat­tle were branded with the WR brand.

This year marks the 50th an­niver­sary of Rock­e­feller’s first year as gover­nor.

In his 1978 book The Arkansas Rock­e­feller, John Ward ti­tled the chap­ter on that first year in the gover­nor’s of­fice “An Ag­o­niz­ing Ad­just­ment.”

His­to­ri­ans re­gard him as one of the state’s great­est gov­er­nors, but sur­viv­ing 1967 was a chal­lenge for Rock­e­feller, an in­tensely pri­vate, painfully shy man who was the first mem­ber of his fa­mous fam­ily to live in the Amer­i­can South.

“He called it a mo­men­tous day in his life—his in­au­gu­ra­tion as gover­nor— and he added that it was pos­si­bly a mo­men­tous day in the his­tory

of Arkansas,” Ward wrote. “Rock­e­feller ex­pressed his hopes and fears with what was termed un­usual elo­quence, call­ing for a ‘far-reach­ing quest for qual­ity’ and an ‘era of ex­cel­lence.’ He would hear the lat­ter term thrown back at him many times—with dis­tor­tion and de­ri­sion —Aura of Ar­ro­gance, Er­ror of Ex­cel­lence.

“The four years would turn up­side down a state ac­cus­tomed to rub­ber-stamp non-con­tro­versy in the cap­i­tal. WR would turn the white heat on ev­ery prob­lem he un­cov­ered, more than once burn­ing him­self and many of those close to him in the process. There were no se­crets in the Rock­e­feller ad­min­is­tra­tion. Many be­lieved fer­vently that he would have been well ad­vised to keep a few. … The seeds were al­ready sown for more dis­cord than had ever been wit­nessed by a staid cit­i­zenry or an ex­cited and ap­pre­cia­tive press.”

Though Rock­e­feller took of­fice in Jan­uary 1967, he and his wife didn’t take up res­i­dence in the Gover­nor’s Man­sion at Lit­tle Rock un­til Oc­to­ber of that year. When in

Lit­tle Rock, the Rock­e­fellers spent nights in a pent­house apart­ment across the street from the state Capi­tol. Ward wrote that the move “re­in­forced the doubts

of some about whether he thought the Man­sion—or the of­fice of gover­nor, for that mat­ter—was good enough for him. Al­though he ex­plained more than once that the de­lay was to al­low time for ren­o­va­tion, some hinted openly that the tra­di­tion against liquor be­ing served in the Man­sion was an im­por­tant rea­son for his long wait be­fore mov­ing there. It wasn’t. If he wanted a drink, Rock­e­feller had one, with no at­tempt at se­crecy. In fact, on more than one con­tro­ver­sial oc­ca­sion, Rock­e­feller was as cheer­fully can­did about hav­ing a drink in the morn­ing be­fore a tough day at the Capi­tol as he was about ev­ery­thing else.”

In cer­tain re­spects, Petit Jean Moun­tain was as much the cap­i­tal of Arkansas as was Lit­tle Rock dur­ing the four years (1967-71) that Rock­e­feller served as the state’s first Repub­li­can gover­nor since Re­con­struc­tion. He far pre­ferred to be at his beloved Win­rock Farms and would spend days at a time on the moun­tain, en­ter­tain­ing vis­i­tors not only from across the state but from around the world. A land­ing strip atop the moun­tain made ac­cess easy as Marion Bur­ton and other pi­lots flew Rock­e­feller aboard his pri­vate planes to wher­ever he needed to be.

Where he needed to be and where he wanted to be of­ten were far dif­fer­ent things. He wanted to be at Win­rock Farms with his prized Santa Gertrudis cat­tle and the ma­jes­tic views of the Arkansas River Val­ley be­low. He wanted to make his ranch a show­case so the world could see what could hap­pen in Arkansas.

“He was eco­nomic roy­alty, and this was his ci­tadel,” Robert Brown, a for­mer Arkansas Supreme Court jus­tice, said dur­ing an event sev­eral years ago at the Winthrop Rock­e­feller In­sti­tute on Petit Jean. Brown, whose fa­ther was the Epis­co­pal bishop of Arkansas, re­mem­bered a 1967 visit by the arch­bishop of Canterbury to Arkansas. Brown said the arch­bishop, who had met a num­ber of world lead­ers, was par­tic­u­larly anx­ious to meet this scion of John D. Rock­e­feller who had aban­doned the bright lights of New York and moved to a ru­ral, im­pov­er­ished place called Arkansas.

As for the state Capi­tol, Ward wrote: “He was hardly ever there. He made lit­tle apol­ogy for his un­avail­abil­ity, de­spite con­tin­ual carp­ing by the press and oth­ers. He said the gover­nor’s of­fice was geared for cer­e­mo­nial func­tions, and in or­der to get any­thing cre­ative and worth­while done, he had to think about it. He could do that bet­ter, he ar­gued, in the pri­vacy of the Gover­nor’s Man­sion or at Win­rock. Some be­lieved him. Oth­ers didn’t. But through it all, even in the cam­paigns, he re­fused to bend very much. And the cam­paign years saw the or­ga­ni­za­tion

in­sist­ing, if fu­tilely, that ‘the gover­nor’s of­fice is where he is.’”

The vis­i­tor to Petit Jean ex­its Arkansas 9 at Op­pelo and heads west on Arkansas 154, leav­ing the flat pas­tures along the Arkansas River be­hind for the climb up the moun­tain. Petit Jean rises from the sur­round­ing val­ley and was men­tioned by early ex­plor­ers such as Thomas Nuttall in 1819 and gov­ern­ment sur­veyor Henry Downs in 1821. In his Jour­nal of Trav­els into the Arkansas Ter­ri­tory dur­ing the Year 1819, Nuttall wrote: “To­wards the south­ern ex­trem­ity of the ridge which I as­cended, there are sev­eral enor­mous masses of rocks so nicely bal­anced as al­most to ap­pear the work of art; one of them, like the druidi­cal mon­u­ments of Eng­land, rocked back­wards and for­wards on the slight­est touch.”

It’s easy to see how Rock­e­feller found peace here. It was the search for peace that had driven him to Arkansas in 1953. He was a refugee from a highly pub­li­cized di­vorce and the con­stant scru­tiny that any­one with the name Rock­e­feller was forced to live un­der in Man­hat­tan back then. He was a far dif­fer­ent man from his brothers, hav­ing with­drawn from Yale Univer­sity af­ter three years so he could go to the oil fields of Texas to serve as an ap­pren­tice rough­neck. He later would tell friends that it was among the hap­pi­est pe­ri­ods of his life.

At age 25 in 1937, Rock­e­feller re­turned to New York to work for his fam­ily’s So­cony-Vac­uum oil com­pany.

An­other happy pe­riod came dur­ing World War II. He had en­listed in the Army as a pri­vate more than 10 months be­fore the Ja­panese at­tack on Pearl Har­bor. By the end of the war, Rock­e­feller was a lieu­tenant colonel who had seen ac­tion at Guam and Ok­i­nawa. He thrived in that role, but the end of the war marked a re­turn to New York and pry­ing tabloid re­porters.

“Rock­e­feller’s years af­ter World War II were not happy ones,” Arkansas his­to­rian Tom Dil­lard wrote. “Still work­ing at So­cony-Vac­uum, he chaffed at the re­stric­tive life­style ex­pected of him and his sib­lings. A heavy drinker known for his play­boy life­style, Rock­e­feller of­ten fre­quented chic cafes late at night with a movie star on his arm. He abruptly mar­ried an at­trac­tive blonde di­vorcee named Bar­bara ‘Bobo’ Sears on Valen­tine’s Day in 1948. Soon they were the par­ents of a son, Winthrop Paul Rock­e­feller, but the mar­riage dis­solved within a year.”

Rock­e­feller fled to Arkansas in 1953 at the in­vi­ta­tion of an Army buddy from the state, Frank Newell. He first lived in down­town Lit­tle Rock at the Ho­tel Sam Peck (now the Legacy Ho­tel) then be­came en­chanted with Petit Jean on a visit there. Within a year he had pur­chased a 927-acre tract atop the moun­tain and hired area res­i­dents to clear brush and be­gin run­ning ir­ri­ga­tion pipes up the side of Petit Jean. The ranch even­tu­ally would ex­pand to 2,500 acres atop the moun­tain and an­other 4,500 acres down in the val­ley.

The Winthrop Rock­e­feller In­sti­tute

now oc­cu­pies the heart of the ranch and in­cludes a mu­seum that tells the Rock­e­feller story. One of the peo­ple quoted as part of the mu­seum’s dis­play is Dale Parish, a car­pen­ter who worked on the ranch.

“Lo­cal peo­ple couldn’t be­lieve that a Rock­e­feller was ac­tu­ally mov­ing here,” Parish said. “For most folks it was some far-fetched ru­mor. As a com­mu­nity, we couldn’t com­pre­hend why any Rock­e­feller would want to come here of all places.”

Arkansans had a strong in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex in the early 1950s, much of it earned. Time mag­a­zine pub­lished a lengthy profile of Rock­e­feller in De­cem­ber 1966, just weeks be­fore he was sworn in as gover­nor. The story opened with the fa­mous ques­tion and an­swer from “The Arkansas Trav­eler.”

“Whar’s this road go to?”

“I been livin’ here fer years ’n’ I ain’t seen it go no place.”

The ar­ti­cle painted a bru­tal pic­ture of the first five decades of the 20th cen­tury in Arkansas: “In a part of the world that had gone no place since the Civil War, the di­rec­tion­less road of vaudevil­lian fame was far more apt as a sym­bol of Arkansas’ dead-end eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal con­di­tion than as a sam­pling of Ozark hu­mor. For all its ma­jes­tic forests and fer­tile bot­tom­lands, its boun­ti­ful nat­u­ral re­sources and the Mis­sis­sippi on its eastern fron­tier, the state re­mained for long decades a kind of lim­boland.

“Arkansas has never been con­sis­tently South­ern in tem­per­a­ment de­spite its his­toric and geo­graphic ties to the Old Con­fed­er­acy; though it is more West­ern in the look of the land and its yield, the state has never em­braced the West’s ex­pan­sion­ist, as­sim­ila­tive out­look. In­stead, in the eyes of the world it seemed aim­lessly in­su­lar, ob­du­rately in­de­pen­dent—and com­i­cally back­ward. As then-Gov. Charles Brough boasted 50 years ago: ‘You could build a wall around the state of Arkansas and its peo­ple would be self-suf­fi­cient.’ The trou­ble was—and is—that Arkansans have lived too long be­hind self-con­structed walls of com­pla­cency, medi­ocrity and provin­cial­ism.”

Rock­e­feller spent the fi­nal two decades of his life try­ing to change that. He was an un­likely sav­ior, but he was good for Arkansas. Arkansas, in turn, was good for Rock­e­feller.

Here’s how Time put it in late 1966 in its profile of the non­con­formist, re­bel­lious WR: “Win Rock­e­feller, at 54, needs Arkansas as much as it needs him. In­deed, his brother, David, 51, pres­i­dent of New York’s Chase Man­hat­tan Bank, and Nel­son, 58, gover­nor of New York, both use the same words to de­scribe his in­cen­tives: ‘Win found him­self in Arkansas.’ Adds David: ‘It was just what he wanted and needed.’”

Winthrop Rock­e­feller died of pan­cre­atic cancer on Feb. 22, 1973, in Palm Springs, Calif., where he had gone to es­cape the cold Arkansas win­ter. His ashes were brought back to his beloved Petit Jean Moun­tain.


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