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Winthrop Rockefeller (1912-1973), politician and philanthropist, served as
the first Republican governor of Arkansas since reconstruction.
Winthrop Rockefeller was born 1 May 1912 in New York City, New York to John
D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Abby Greene Aldrich. He was the grandson of John
Davison Rockefeller, Sr. who founded the Standard Oil Company.
Winthrop attended Yale University from 1931 to 1934.
He served in the United States Army during World War II advancing from
Private to Colonel and earning a Bronze Star with clusters and Purple Heart
for his actions aboard the troopship USS Henrico after it was attacked by a
kamikaze mission. He appears in the Infantry Officer Hall of Fame at Fort
Rockefeller married Barbara "Bobo" Sears in 1948 and established a
self-admitted reputation as a playboy. He and Barbara went through a stormy
divorce in 1954.
Move to Arkansas
Rockefeller moved to central Arkansas in 1953 and established Winrock
Enterprises and Winrock Farms atop Petit Jean Mountain near Morrilton,
In 1955 Governor Orval Faubus appointed him as chairman of the Arkansas
Industrial Development Commission (AIDC). In 1956 he married Jeanette Idris.
Rockefeller fell in love with Arkansas and commenced an assortment of
philanthropies and projects for the benefit of the people of the state. He
financed the building of a model school at Morrilton, Arkansas, led efforts
to establish a Fine Arts Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, financed the
construction of medical clinics in some of the state's poorest counties, in
addition to making annual gifts to the state's colleges and universities.
These philanthropic activities continue to this day through the Winthrop
First Political Campaigns
Rockefeller resigned his position with the AIDC and conducted his first
campaign for governor in 1964. His campaign was ultimately unsuccessful
against the powerful Faubus, but Rockefeller had energized and reformed the
tiny Republican Party and had set the stage for the future.
When Rockefeller made his second run in 1966 only 11% of Arkansans
considered themselves Republicans. But the people of Arkansas had grown
tired of Orval Faubus after six terms as Governor and as head of the
Democratic "machine". Democrats themselves seemed to be more interested in
the reforms that Rockefeller offered in his campaign than "winning another
one for the party". An odd coalition of Republicans and Democratic reform
voters catapulted Rockefeller into the Governor's office.
Governor of Arkansas
The Rockefeller administration enthusiastically embarked on a series of
reforms but faced a hostile Democratic legislature. Rockefeller endured a
number of personal attacks and a concerted whispering campaign regarding his
Rockefeller had a particular interest in the reform of the Arkansas prison
system. Soon after his election he had received a shocking State Police
report on the brutal conditions within the prison system. He decried the
"lack of righteous indignation" about the situation and created the new
Department of Corrections which made huge strides in making the Arkansas
prison system into a more professionally-run institution.
Rockefeller also focused on the State's lackluster educational system,
providing funding for new buildings and increases in teacher salaries when
the legislature allowed.
Rockefeller won re-election in 1968 and proposed tax increases to pay for
additional reforms. Rockefeller and the legislature dueled with competing
public-relations campaigns and Rockefeller's plan ultimately collapsed in
the face of public indifference. Much of Rockefeller's second term was spent
fighting with the recalcitrant legislature.
During this term Rockefeller quietly and successfully completed the
integration of Arkansas schools that had been such a political bombshell
only a few years before. He established the Council on Human Relations
despite opposition from the legislature. Draft boards in the state boasted
the highest level of racial integration of any state in the Union by the
time Rockefeller left office. When he entered office not one
African-American had served on a Draft Board in the state.
End of the Rockefeller Era
In the campaign of 1970 Rockefeller expected to face Orval Faubus, who led
the old-guard Democrats, but a young Turk named Dale Bumpers rose to the top
of the Democratic heap by promising reform from the Democratic side of the
aisle. The youth of Bumpers and the excitement of a new type of Democrat was
too much for an incumbent Republican to overcome. Rockefeller had lost the
1970 election but had forced the Democrats to reform their own party.
As a shocking last act, Governor Rockefeller commuted the sentences of every
prisoner on Arkansas' Death Row and urged the Governors of other states to
In September 1972 Rockefeller was diagnosed with inoperable cancer and he
endured a devastating round of chemotherapy. When he returned to Arkansas
the populace was shocked at the gaunt and haggard appearance of what had
been a giant of a man.
Winthrop Rockefeller died in Palm Springs, California, on 22 February 1973.
The legacy of Winthrop Rockefeller lives on in the form of numerous
charities, scholarships, and the activities of the Winthrop Rockefeller
Foundation. The foundation provides funding for projects across Arkansas to
encourage economic development, education, and racial and social justice.
Rockefeller's political legacy lives on in both the Republican and
Democratic parties of Arkansas, both of which were forced to reform due to
his presence in Arkansas politics.
Rockefeller was the subject of the 2 Dec 1966 cover of Time Magazine.
Winthrop Rockefeller's son Winthrop Paul Rockefeller serves as the current
Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas.