Former Governor, Philanthropist
Born May 1, 1912, to one of the most influential families in United States history, Winthrop Rockefeller felt the profound weight of responsibility that came with his esteemed last name. Heeding one of his mother’s favorite scriptures, he endeavored to live according to its guiding principles. The words “... and what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8) could be seen in the way he lived his life.
As a young man, Rockefeller seemed to understand that remaining in New York and taking the expected “Rockefeller” path would not give him the opportunity to bring about the kind of changes he wanted to accomplish. He desired to be personally involved in his work. This desire would send the young Rockefeller to his grandfather’s Texas oil fields and then off to war. While serving in WWII and witnessing the great needs of so many, he sought to find a place where he could make a difference.
Army buddy Frank Newell knew what Rockefeller was looking for and invited him to Arkansas. During this visit, Rockefeller found his purpose — and made a decision that would change himself and Arkansas in far-reaching and dramatic ways.
In 1953, he began building Winrock Farms atop beautiful Petit Jean Mountain. The original 927-acre farm became a state-of-the-art, purebred cattle ranch and row-crop operation that consistently set standards in the industry. After 60 years, Winrock Farms continues to look to the future as a new generation steps up to continue Rockefeller’s legacy.
In 1955, Democrat Gov. Orval Faubus appointed Rockefeller first chair of the new Arkansas Industrial Development Commission (AIDC). This was the precursor to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC). During his nine years as chair of the AIDC, 600 new industrial plants were constructed in Arkansas, providing 90,000 jobs with annual payrolls of more than $270 million. Industrial employment grew by 47.5 percent, and manufacturing wages grew by 88 percent, compared to a national increase of only 36 percent. Rockefeller’s influence was beginning to make a difference in the lives of Arkansans.
While pouring much of his own capital into the Arkansas economy, Rockefeller financed a model school in Morrilton, encouraged the creation of the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, paid for health clinics in rural areas and supported the state’s universities. His giving, including gifts made through the Rockwin Fund, ultimately exceeded $10 million.
Rockefeller’s effect on the economy, community and psyche of Arkansas was sweeping, but by 1964 it became clear to him that changes Arkansans wanted and needed were coming too slowly.
Breaking the stranglehold that one-party politics had on the state would require him to run for governor and Rockefeller ran as a Republican in 1964. Even though Faubus defeated him, he received 44 percent of the vote, twice the percentage of any other Republican candidate in almost a century. Rockefeller made it clear that he would be back for another run in 1966. This time, Democrats ran former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Jim Johnson, but Rockefeller’s time had come. On Nov. 8, 1966, Rockefeller received 54 percent of the vote to become the first Republican governor in Arkansas since post-Civil War Reconstruction.
Rockefeller advocated for public policy and government reforms that helped create a vibrant economic and business environment. These reforms included several laws enacted during the 1967 legislature establishing the state’s first minimum wage, tightening lax insurance regulation and adopting a strong freedom of information law. During two terms, Rockefeller maintained operations at Winrock Farms, which by 1966 included an additional 34,000 acres and 6,000 head of cattle spread across three states. He also continued to govern and conduct business, farming, philanthropic endeavors from his mountaintop farm and home.
On Feb. 22, 1973, in Palm Springs, California, Rockefeller succumbed to pancreatic cancer. During the 20 years he lived on Petit Jean, Rockefeller convened more than 200 formal and informal discussions among business, political and thought leaders. Although his philanthropic, business and political accomplishments were great, he was most proud of what he inspired others to do. He wanted to be remembered as “a catalyst who hopefully served to excite in the hearts and minds of our people a desire to shape our own destiny.”
Rockefeller’s wealth was divided between the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, which concentrates on education, economic development, and economic, racial and social justice. The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute was established in 2005, when the trust granted the University of Arkansas System a 188-acre campus that was once part of Rockefeller’s home and cattle farm. The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute carries on Rockefeller’s strong belief in the power of collaboration and free exchange of ideas.
Rockefeller’s legacy influences the business culture in Arkansas and lives on in the numerous institutions that bear his name or were inspired by his philanthropy and vision. His dedication to the people of the state continues to grow and create a bright future for Arkansans. Winthrop Rockefeller could have chosen to live anywhere in the world — thankfully, he chose Arkansas to call home.