Winthrop Rockefeller left his family roots in New York City and moved down to Arkansas in 1953. His connection to the state was an old army friend who lived there. Rockefeller settled on a flat-topped mountain. He could have easily remained in reclusive seclusion, never mingling with the “backward” Arkansans. “Backward ‘is a correct word, for Arkansas was among the poorest of states in the ’50s. Arkansas was under the thumb of severe corruption in the state government–namely the Orval Faubus political machine from 1955-67. This was the type of corruption and control that you find in movies.
As you likely recall, I was born and raised in Arkansas during these times and heard firsthand the feats of Rockefeller. By 1955, Rockefeller was appointed to the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission which set out to help Arkansas grow. After nine years on the commission, he could claim bringing 600 new industrial plants to the state and 90,000 new jobs.
In 1966, Rockefeller ran for Governor and won–something thought impossible. He ushered in what was called an “Era of Excellence” in which he proceeded to reform the corrupt practices of state government inherited from the Faubus machine. He closed illegal gambling in Hot Springs, integrated the State Police, and hired a professional criminologist who reformed the notoriously cruel (see the film “Brubaker”) state prisons.
Rockefeller did not stop with reforms, and started helping the state other ways. He did not give handouts, but rather hand-ups. He invested in strategic ways to bring the state into modernity, and showed a great compassion that recognized a dignity in the people that they had not recognized in themselves.
He brought an entire cultural change to Arkansas. The state was so poor that it hadn’t the slightest idea what to do with money. The wealthy families before Rockefeller arrived, largely kept to themselves in an insulated country-club environment. The difference was his Eastern Yankee understanding of being wealthy. Rockefeller actually brought with his wealth a deep sense of responsibility that occupied an incredible amount of his time–making for the genuine title Philanthropist. In his own words, here is how he felt:
“We were born to wealth but from my earliest recollection we were taught to respect the value of the dollar and to recognize that inherited wealth was in a sense given to us in trust — that we were stewards — that while we would live comfortably with that which we inherited and earned, we had the responsibility to see that these resources were also used wisely in the service of our fellow man. I am proud that as a family we learned the lesson of service and in humility have attempted to follow the example of our parents.”
Rockefeller was a magnificent philanthropist. Those who were at first suspicious of this Yankee bearing gifts, soon discerned that Rockefeller had actually adopted Arkansas in his heart. Instead of throwing money to the crowds, Rockefeller made strategic and self-perpetuating investments in order to help Arkansas to a higher level. His programs helped start new businesses (micro-loans) as well as conduct research to better establish current ones, particularly agriculture. He also taught Arkansans he helped to share the help with others. As WinRock Farms made technical advances in farming, the innovations were shared with farmers across the world by Arkansans sent abroad.
Quoting from an official Arkansas Encyclopedia, “In death, Winthrop Rockefeller continues to have an impact on Arkansas. His great wealth was divided between a charitable trust and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, which concentrates on economic development, education, as well as economic, racial, and social justice.”
How did Rockefeller help Arkansas without degrading the people, but rather lifting them up, even to the point of civic pride and celebration with museums and other matters? His attitude was beautiful. He had troubles in his personal life and I know not his status before the Lord. However, with the people of Arkansas, he did it right. In matters of social justice, he leaves a righteous example My favorite picture of Winthrop Rockefeller tells a story. It catches him unawares at an event where he was to be the featured guest. Amidst the crowd before it began, a boy couldn’t quite get his shoes tied. With all the assistants and important folks around, the man who took time to help that little boy was none other than Rockefeller himself. His humility and stewardship served him well. And others too. LH