I made the winding drive up Petit Jean Mountain on Arkansas Highway 154 last Friday, headed toward what would turn out to be a delightful lunch with Christy Carpenter, the new CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute.
I never drive up that mountain without thinking about Gov. Rockefeller, my favorite 20th century Arkansas figure.
As the 20th century wound to a close, I was asked by a Little Rock radio show host to list the top 20 events of the previous 100 years as measured by their effect on Arkansas politics.
I ranked the 1957 integration crisis at Little Rock Central High School first, the 1966 election of Rockefeller as governor second and the 1992 election of Bill Clinton as president third.
“What?” the host asked in amazement. “You rank Rockefeller’s election as governor ahead of Clinton’s election as president?”
I explained that without a Winthrop Rockefeller, a Bill Clinton would never have been possible. Neither would have a Dale Bumpers or a David Pryor. You see, Rockefeller’s election in 1966 and his re-election two years later forced the Democratic Party to move away from its segregationist past and make way for a new breed of Arkansas politician. The Jim Johnsons and Marion Cranks were out. The Bumpers and Pryors were in.
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 then gave us this brutal assessment 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. 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 within 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.”’
If you think that assessment is tough, read on for what Time had to say about 1957: “Then, in 1957, came a great blow to Arkansas’ backwater mentality. Dwight Eisenhower ordered U.S. paratroopers into Little Rock to resolve an unnecessary and uncharacteristic racial crisis over school integration. Overnight the ugly montage of shrieking segregationists, terrified Negro schoolchildren and the dyspeptic protestations of Gov. Orval Faubus became Arkansas’ image to the world. The psychological effect was traumatic. Having previously prided themselves on relatively good race relations, many Arkansans were deeply repelled by the picture that they presented in the unhappy aftermath of Little Rock. It took nearly a decade to germinate, but the seed of change was planted.”
Then, some bright spots.
Time reported: “In the years since, much has altered in Arkansas — all for the better. A groundswell of technological advance, already under way in the late ’50s, has progressed to the point where industry now plays a major role in the economy, population is rising rather than shrinking, about 50 percent of the state’s 2 million people now live in cities and towns and an estimated 30 percent of the population is accounted for by in-migration.
“For its economic and social transformation, Arkansas owes much to a transplanted Yankee whose surname — connoting vast wealth, liberal Republicanism and cosmopolitan interest — once seemed as alien to the state as fine champagne. Winthrop Rockefeller has not only devoted his time and fortune over the last 13 years to improving the quality of life in Arkansas. He has also succeeded almost singlehanded in renovating its political structure. His electoral victory in November was a historic event. He will become Arkansas’ first Republican governor since 1874.”
This New York native, who had arrived in our state in 1953 and helped transform it during the next two decades, made things possible that otherwise would have taken much longer.
What an unlikely savior.
He was good for Arkansas.
Arkansas, in turn, was good for WR.
Here’s how Time put it in late 1966: “Win Rockefeller, at 54, needs Arkansas as much as it needs him. Indeed, his brothers 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.”’
David Rockefeller said his brother was “basically the nonconformist. He was rebellious against the stereotype of what we are.”
In a note to the three older brothers — John D. III, Nelson and Laurance — mother Abby Aldrich Rockefeller once wrote: “It seems cruel to me that you big boys should make Winthrop the goat all the time. You know very well that the only way to help him is by being kind to him.”
Winthrop dropped out of Yale his junior year, the only one of the five boys not to finish college. He then worked as a roustabout in the Texas oilfields for 75 cents an hour.
He liked people. That included pretty women.
Bobo Sears came along when WR was 35.
Time noted: “Born Jievute Paulekiute in the Pennsylvania coal country, renamed Eva Paul, then Barbara Paul as a show business title, then Bobo by the chic set she moved up to, the comely blonde had been married to Richard Sears Jr., a well-to-do Bostonian who went into the Foreign Service after the war. After first meeting the onetime model and bit actress in a New York restaurant, Win Rockefeller burbled: ‘I saw her and I knew I was gone.”’
They were married at 14 minutes past midnight on Feb. 14, 1948. Their son, Winthrop Paul, was born seven months later. The couple was separated in 1950 and divorced in Reno in 1954 after Winthrop’s move to Arkansas.
Bobo was the daughter of Lithuanian immigrants. She was born in 1916 in Pennsylvania and grew up near the Chicago stockyards and later in Indiana following her parents’ divorce. She was named Miss Lithuania at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and went to New York to pursue an acting career. She was divorced from Sears in 1947 and married WR the following year.
Time reported in that 1966 profile of Rockefeller: “Of more lasting pain has been the separation from his only child, Winthrop Paul, now 18, who was also elected to office this fall — as president of his senior class at the Herringswell Manor School in England. Though young Win spends part of his holidays with his father, Bobo won custody of the boy and has had him in European schools for the past three years.”
Fortunately, Win Paul later would spend quality time with his father.
Like his father, Win Paul would die of cancer at far too young an age. It was the winter of 1973 when we lost Winthrop Rockefeller and the summer of 2006 when we lost Win Paul.
Win Paul’s mother, meanwhile, lived to age 91 and died May 19, 2008, here in Little Rock, where she had come to be near her daughter-in-law and grandchildren.
Win Paul said this in 2003 when discussing his father: “I know I was lucky to be born a Rockefeller, but I am luckier to have been born Winthrop Rockefeller’s son. Dad’s greatest gift to me was not my last name but my first because with that name he left me a great heritage and at the same time an equally great challenge to follow his vision and shape my own, but always to serve, and do so with love.”
We’re fortunate the Rockefellers came our way.