Cen­tury chart-toppers

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - Rex Nel­son Rex Nel­son is a se­nior ed­i­tor at the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette. let­ters@nwadg.com

As the 20th cen­tury came to a close, I was asked by the host of a Lit­tle Rock ra­dio show to list the top 20 events that af­fected Arkansas pol­i­tics dur­ing the pre­vi­ous 100 years. I ranked the 1957 in­te­gra­tion cri­sis at Lit­tle Rock Cen­tral High School first, the 1966 elec­tion of Winthrop Rock­e­feller as gover­nor sec­ond, and the 1992 elec­tion of Bill Clin­ton as pres­i­dent third.

“What?” the host asked. “How can you rank the Rock­e­feller elec­tion ahead of the Clin­ton elec­tion?”

I re­minded him that he asked that the rat­ing be based on its ef­fect on state pol­i­tics, not na­tional pol­i­tics. I noted that with­out a Winthrop Rock­e­feller, a Bill Clin­ton might never have been pos­si­ble. Rock­e­feller’s vic­tory over Democrats Jim John­son in 1966 and Marion Crank in 1968 forced the Demo­cratic Party to move away from its seg­re­ga­tion­ist past and make way for a new breed of politi­cian. John­son, Crank and their ilk were out. Dale Bumpers, David Pryor and a host of other young pro­gres­sives were in.

In De­cem­ber 1966, as Rock­e­feller pre­pared to take the oath of of­fice as the state’s first Repub­li­can gover­nor since Re­con­struc­tion, Time mag­a­zine pub­lished a story on the state. Here’s the pic­ture of Arkansas that the news­magazine painted as Or­val Faubus left the gover­nor’s of­fice af­ter a dozen years: “Well into the 1950s, the state ranked at or near the bot­tom of vir­tu­ally ev­ery in­dex of progress, from lit­er­acy to av­er­age in­come to the num­ber of den­tists per capita. Though the Leg­is­la­ture in the ’20s dubbed Arkansas the Won­der State and later more mod­estly re­named it the Land of Op­por­tu­nity, by the early ’40s the bright­est op­por­tu­nity for young peo­ple mov­ing off the farms lay in a one-way ticket to an­other state. Those who man­aged to get a good ed­u­ca­tion found lit­tle re­ward for their learn­ing back home; a com­pe­tent tech­ni­cian could ask higher wages with half a day’s bus ride in al­most any di­rec­tion. State gov­ern­ment was ham­pered at ev­ery level by an anachro­nis­tic con­sti­tu­tion en­acted in 1874, which, as Arkansans point out, was two years be­fore Custer’s last stand.”

Rock­e­feller was in of­fice for only four years, but he changed the tra­jec­tory of this state. There are sev­eral im­por­tant Arkansas in­sti­tu­tions that keep his legacy alive. Rock­e­feller died in 1973 and left most of his es­tate to the Winthrop Rock­e­feller Char­i­ta­ble Trust. The trust in turn cre­ated the non­profit Winthrop Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion with a fo­cus on ed­u­ca­tion, eco­nomic growth and so­cial jus­tice. A sec­ond non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion, Win­rock In­ter­na­tional, works around the world to pro­tect nat­u­ral re­sources and pro­vide eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity. It builds on the re­search Rock­e­feller was do­ing at his ranch atop Petit Jean Moun­tain.

This year marks the 50th an­niver­sary of Rock­e­feller be­ing sworn in as gover­nor. As I pointed out in the essay on the cover of this sec­tion, no place in Arkansas meant as much to Rock­e­feller as Petit Jean. The Winthrop Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion and Win­rock In­ter­na­tional are based in Lit­tle Rock. The Winthrop Rock­e­feller In­sti­tute, on the other hand, is on the grounds of the Rock­e­feller ranch on Petit Jean and does more than any or­ga­ni­za­tion to ed­u­cate Arkansans about Rock­e­feller.

Within months of Rock­e­feller’s death, Win­rock In­ter­na­tional was es­tab­lished on 188 acres that had served as the heart of the ranch. For three decades, the global devel­op­ment or­ga­ni­za­tion called the moun­tain home be­fore choos­ing to build a new head­quar­ters in the Riverdale area of Lit­tle Rock. With the move off the ranch, the prop­erty re­verted to the Winthrop Rock­e­feller Char­i­ta­ble Trust.

The board of the trust joined forces with the Univer­sity of Arkansas Sys­tem in 2005 to cre­ate a world-class con­fer­ence cen­ter and ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tute. Trust funds were used to re­model al­most 30,000 square feet of ex­ist­ing space, lodg­ing fa­cil­i­ties were con­structed, and ex­ten­sive land­scap­ing was done. More than $20 mil­lion was spent.

Dur­ing its first five years of op­er­a­tion, WRI spon­sored pro­grams in ar­eas rang­ing from agri­cul­ture to the arts. In 2007 an Arkansas Arche­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey sta­tion was re­lo­cated to the in­sti­tute’s grounds.

WRI and trust board mem­bers, how­ever, were con­cerned that there was a lack of fo­cus. In try­ing to be all things to all peo­ple, WRI was spread­ing it­self too thin. The WRI board hired Korn Ferry In­ter­na­tional, a na­tion­ally known ex­ec­u­tive search firm, to find a CEO with con­tacts across the coun­try. Christy Car­pen­ter, who at the time was the ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent and chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of the Pa­ley Cen­ter for Me­dia (pre­vi­ously the Mu­seum of Television & Ra­dio), was hired in 2011.

Car­pen­ter, with the help of her hus­band, ac­tor Robert Walden, helped draw at­ten­tion to the in­sti­tute, but tired of its re­mote lo­ca­tion. She left her job in 2013. In De­cem­ber of that year, Marta Loyd of the Univer­sity of Arkansas at Fort Smith was hired to take over. Loyd, who in her 17 years in higher ed­u­ca­tion at Fort Smith was in­stru­men­tal in the growth of what had been Wes­tark Com­mu­nity Col­lege, dived into the job and has pro­vided the fo­cus WRI needs. It has be­come a place where those with dis­parate views come to dis­cuss the state’s chal­lenges on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

“He wasn’t per­fect,” Loyd says of Rock­e­feller. “He was very much hu­man. But de­spite his chal­lenges, he found a way to ef­fec­tively deal with peo­ple re­gard­less of their po­si­tion in life. We lean on his legacy as we plan events here. We’re mind­ful of our re­spon­si­bil­ity to bring all sides of is­sues to the ta­ble. In keep­ing with his ap­proach, this needs to be the premier place in this re­gion of the coun­try for peo­ple to come to­gether in a safe en­vi­ron­ment for thought­ful dis­course. Civil dis­course is at the heart of ev­ery­thing we do.”

In an era when peo­ple seem to pre­fer yelling at each other, it’s a re­fresh­ing ap­proach.

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