The governor who found himself in Arkansas
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.