As a trustee of the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust, Marion Burton had a dream. Burton, who died last last month at age 93, dreamed of Winthrop Rockefeller's ranch atop Petit Jean Mountain returning to what it had been when Rockefeller served as governor from 1967-71.
It would once more be a place where Arkansans could gather on a regular basis to hash out problems and create a better state.
Burton, whose years as a pilot and key adviser for Rockefeller were the subject of a blog post last week, lived to see his dream become a reality. Founded in 2005, the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute continues Rockefeller's collaborative approach to change.
During his 20 years in Arkansas, the native New Yorker hosted hundreds of meetings atop Petit Jean to talk about his adopted state.
There was something about being away from the bustle of the capital city that led to progress. The quiet setting, beautiful views and great food are still part of the recipe for success.
When Rockefeller died of cancer in 1973, the nonprofit organization Winrock International was established to do agricultural and rural development research. It used buildings that once had been part of Rockefeller's ranch. In 2004, Winrock International moved its headquarters to Little Rock. The mountaintop property reverted to the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust.
That's when Burton and the other trustees got busy.
Facilities were leased to the University of Arkansas System. The trust then gave $53 million to develop a master plan for capital improvements and operations. Barns were restored, a lodge was constructed and extensive landscaping was done. WRI is truly one of Arkansas' shining jewels.
I never turn down a chance to speak to groups meeting on WRI's 188-acre campus. It's adjacent to what's still a working cattle ranch owned by the Rockefeller family. There's something special about spending the night away from distractions while getting to know new people during dinner. The lack of distractions encourages conversation.
In October 2018, the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust transferred more than $100 million to the UA Foundation to be used as an endowment for WRI.
Three years later, Burton announced that he was personally giving $1 million to WRI.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Rockefeller's unsuccessful 1964 campaign against Gov. Orval Faubus. Rockefeller lost, but that campaign set the stage for a winning campaign in 1966 that made Rockefeller the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction.
Burton worked on both the 1964 and 1966 campaigns.
The last time I saw Burton was at a WRI event to celebrate the 2022 release by the University of Arkansas Press of John Kirk's masterful biography, "Winthrop Rockefeller: From New Yorker to Arkansawyer, 1912-1956."
I interviewed Kirk, the George W. Donaghey distinguished professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, that day. Burton was in the audience.
I'm hoping Kirk will soon finish a second volume that covers Rockefeller's remaining years in Arkansas. Burton's name no doubt will show up in such a book.
I'm glad I last saw Marion Burton atop Petit Jean at an event where we talked about Winthrop Rockefeller. Burton loved that place, and he loved that man. More than anything, though, he loved his native state and its people. We could use a lot more like him.