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Atop Petit Jean Mountain

I look to the west from my downtown Little Rock office on this clear spring day and have a good view of the old Hotel Sam Peck, now the Legacy.

It was the Sam Peck that Winthrop Rockefeller first called home when he came to our state in 1953, a refugee from a highly publicized divorce and the constant scrutiny that anyone with the name of Rockefeller was forced to live under in Manhattan.

Rockefeller, a far different man from his brothers, had withrawn from Yale University after three years and gone to the oil fields of Texas to serve as an apprentice roughneck. He later would tell friends that it was one of the happiest periods of his life.

In 1937, at age 25, the man who later would become known in our state simply as WR returned to New York and went to work for the Socony-Vacuum oil company. Another happy period would be his Army career during World War II. He had enlisted as a private more than 10 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. By the end of the war, he was a lieutenant colonel who had seen action at Guam and Okinawa.

“Rockefeller’s years after World War II were not happy ones,” Tom Dillard writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Still working at Socony-Vacuum, he chaffed at the restrictive lifestyle expected of him and his siblings. A heavy drinker known for his playboy lifestyle, Rockefeller often frequented chic cafes late at night with a movie star on his arm. He abruptly married an attractive blonde divorcee named Barbara “Bobo” Sears on Valentine’s Day in 1948. Soon they were the parents of a son, Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, but the marriage dissolved within a year.”

So it was that he fled to Arkansas at the invitation of an old Army friend from the state, Frank Newell. And it was into the Sam Peck he moved. Within a year, Rockefeller had purchased a large tract of land atop Petit Jean Mountain and set out to create a model ranch and, ultimately, change an entire state.

In a letter to his son, Rockefeller would write: “While we lived comfortably with that which we inherited and earned, we had the responsibility to see that these resources were also used wisely in the service to our fellow man.”

Years later, in 2003, Winthrop Paul would write: “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, becuase 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.”

I was atop Petit Jean Mountain on Saturday for the Winthrop Rockfeller Legacy Weekend at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute.

It was, in so many ways, a remarkable day as friends and associates of the late governor gathered at a spot he so loved to discuss his contributions to this state.

I was driving on Arkansas Highway 154 on Saturday morning, leaving the flat pastures along the Arkansas River and beginning that climb up the mountain. I remembered something that John Ward, the former aide to and biographer of the governor, once told me on another visit to Petit Jean.

“I never come up this mountain without a bit of a sick feeling,” John said. “That’s because I often was driving up here to deliver bad news to the governor.”

In many respects, Petit Jean was the capital of Arkansas during the four years Rockefeller served as governor from 1967-71. He preferred Winrock Farms to the state Capitol and would spend days at a time on the mountain, entertaining visitors not only from across the state but around the world. A landing strip on Petit Jean made access easy as Marion Burton and others would fly the governor to wherever he needed to be.

Where he needed to be and where he wanted to be often were different things. He wanted to be at Winrock Farms, with his prized Santa Gertrudis cattle and the majestic views of the Arkansas River Valley below.

“He wanted to make this a showcase so the world could see what could happen in Arkansas,” Justice Bob Brown of the Arkansas Supreme Court told those in attendance at Saturday’s event. “He was economic royalty, and this was his citadel.”

Judge Brown, whose father was the Episcopal bishop of Arkansas, remembers a 1967 visit by the archbishop of Canterbury. He particularly remembers how anxious the archbishop was to meet this scion of John D. Rockefeller who had abandoned New York and moved to a rural, impoverished place called Arkansas.

In 1967, of course, Rockefeller was in his first year as governor. It wouldn’t be until the end of his four years in office that the long list of his contributions began to be noticed. And only now, decades later, is the full impact of what he did to change this state being fully examined.

At lunch Saturday, I sat next to William “Sonny” Walker of Atlanta, the man whom Winthrop Rockefeller had hired in 1967 to head the state’s economic opportunity office. At the time, Walker was believed to be the only black man in the cabinet of a Southern governor. Joining us at lunch was one of his sons, former state Sen. Bill Walker, who now serves in Gov. Mike Beebe’s cabinet as head of the state Department of Workforce Education.

“They just didn’t do that back then, and they certainly didn’t do it in the South,” the elder Walker said of Rockefeller’s decision to appoint a black man to a top government position. “I had some of the same ideas that Rockefeller had. I just didn’t have the money he had.”

Dorothy Stuck, the former Marked Tree newspaper editor who would become one of Rockefeller’s close friends, added: “It just amazed me how quickly he came to understand what we needed in this state.”

Even before becoming governor, Rockefeller had helped fund voter registration drives in order to enfranchise black Arkansans. He underwrote an organization known as the Election Research Council, which trained lawyers to root out ballot fraud.

“He opened the Capitol’s front door and let a fresh wind blow through,” Stuck said.

Walker advocated the hiring of black state troopers. He felt that having black troopers would send a positive message to other blacks. As governor, Rockefeller made it happen.

Rockefeller also set out to reform the Arkansas prison system, which Judge Brown described as “a cesspool.” The judge considers that effort a part of Rockefeller’s commitment to civil rights.

“Let’s face it,” Judge Brown said. “Most of the prisoners were African-Americans.”

On the Sunday after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated just across the river from Arkansas in Memphis, Rockefeller joined black ministers on the front steps of the state Capitol. He joined hands with those ministers as a crowd of almost 3,000 people sang “We Shall Overcome.”

You must remember that this was 1968. It was the South. And Rockefeller was on the ballot that year.

“I don’t think he knew the words to the song, but he was there,” Walker said. “That’s what mattered.”

No other Southern governor would make such a gesture.

“That was his defining moment, without question,” Judge Brown said.

Legislative defeats were common for the governor during the 1967 and 1969 legislative sessions. Stuck said those defeats hurt Rockfeller more than he would let on.

“But he never gave up,” Judge Brown said. “That was the thing about him. And ultimately the things he had stood for prevailed.”

If one thing was clear as the Winthrop Rockefeller Legacy Weekend ended, it was that Rockefeller’s 1953 decision to come to Arkansas was among the defining events in the 20th century for our state.

“Although he didn’t live to see it, the seeds he planted have come to fruition,” Stuck said. “What happened here radiated out across the country.”

In April 1971, with Dale Bumpers having moved into the Governor’s Mansion, Rockefeller was presented a silver plaque that was described as being from “the black people of Arkansas.”

This is what it said: “Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, an inspiration to the young, a symbol of security for the old, full of love, warmth and compassion; a champion of human rights, brotherhood and dignity, who brought the Rockefeller family tradition to Arkansas and sacrificed time, resources, energy and public office for the causes of unity, justice and equality. Thank you for all you have done, for all you are doing to make our state the Land of Opportunity for all Arkansans. God bless you.”

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