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Christy Carpenter takes charge at WRI

In yesterday’s post I mentioned the great visit I had Friday atop Petit Jean Mountain with Christy Carpenter, the new chief executive officer of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute.

Carpenter, 61, was hired earlier this year to take the institute — one of this state’s gems — to an even higher level. I’m writing a feature on her and the institute for an upcoming issue of Arkansas Life magazine.

A quick primer: Winthrop Rockefeller died of pancreatic cancer in February 1973. That same year, 188 acres that had been part of the Rockefeller ranch on Petit Jean became the home of the Winrock International Livestock Research and Training Center. The center’s goal was to improve animal agriculture, in part utilizing the expertise that had been developed while raising Santa Gertrudis cattle on Petit Jean.

In 1985, the research and training center was combined with two organizations — the Agricultural Development Council and the International Agricultural Development Service — that had been founded by Winthrop’s older brother, John D. Rockefeller III. The three organizations became Winrock International.

With worldwide operations, Winrock International needed its headquarters to be near a commercial airport. So in 2004 it moved to the Riverdale area of Little Rock. Those 188 acres on Petit Jean then reverted to the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust.

Wanting to use the property to its fullest potential, the board of the trust provided the University of Arkansas System with $53 million to fund a master plan for capital improvements, operations and educational programs. That plan called for the adaptive reuse of 30,000 square feet of existing space, the construction of new lodging facilities and extensive landscaping.

The nonprofit institute was established in 2005. It has its own board, one member of which is Lisenne Rockefeller of Little Rock, the widow of Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, the former lieutenant governor who died of cancer in the summer of 2006.

During its five years of operation, WRI program areas have ranged from agriculture to the environment to economic development to the arts. In 2007, one of the 11 Arkansas Archeological Survey stations relocated to the institute’s grounds.

Here was the problem in the view of some of those associated with the charitable trust: The institute was lacking a clear focus. In trying to be all things to all people, it was spreading itself thin. Simply put, it wasn’t achieving the world-class status the funders desired.

In an attempt to remedy those concerns, the WRI board hired Korn Ferry International, a well-known executive search firm, to find a CEO with nationwide contacts.

Up in New York, Christy Carpenter read the job description sent out by the search firm and decided it fit her abilities and aspirations. At the time, Carpenter was the executive vice president and COO of the Paley Center for Media (previously the Museum of Television & Radio).

Carpenter comes from good stock. Her parents were two prominent Washington-based journalists, Les and Liz Carpenter of the Carpenter News Bureau. Liz Carpenter went on to work for Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson and was with LBJ on that terrible day in Dallas when President Kennedy was assassinated. It was Liz Carpenter, in fact, who wrote the short statement Johnson released after being sworn in as president. The note cards on which she scribbled that statement are now in the Johnson Library on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.

I’ll have more on Liz Carpenter in a blog post later this week.

Christy Carpenter has brought along her husband, actor Robert Walden. The couple has been married for two years.

Walden, 67, is a New York native whose acting career began in 1970 in Roger Corman’s “Bloody Mama.” He’s best known for his role as Joe Rossi on the television series “Lou Grant,” for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award three times.

Walden recently returned to series television in the TV Land sitcom “Happily Divorced,” which premiered in June. He plays the father of the lead character, who is played by series creator and writer Fran Drescher.

Following weeks of shooting the series in California, Walden made the long drive to Arkansas in his new Audi. He joined us for lunch Friday and talked about how delighted he is to be in our state.

Carpenter is hopeful she can somehow plug her husband, who has taught drama at The New School in New York, into a WRI focus on the arts.

For now, Carpenter is getting to know the staff, reviewing the institute’s current programs and beginning to think about how to move WRI forward.

Winthrop Rockefeller began buying land atop Petit Jean soon after moving to Arkansas in 1953. He was determined to develop one of the nation’s premier cattle ranches while also building a place to host noted visitors from around the world. He would buy 927 acres, build an elaborate home, construct six lakes, install an irrigation system that pumped water up the mountain and add a mountaintop airfield that would handle his private jet.

I was reminded of WRI’s potential on a hot Friday afternoon back in June when I paid a visit to Petit Jean. I looked into the clear skies that day and watched as a private jet swooped toward the airport Rockefeller had built. Aboard that plane was David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, who was making the one-day trip from Manhattan to Petit Jean to serve as the final speaker at a writers’ summit sponsored by the Oxford American.

I thought to myself that this was the kind of thing that should be happening on a regular basis at WRI: A famous journalist being interviewed by the editor of a respected Southern literary magazine, dozens of writers from across the country listening to their comments and a bunch of Arkansans who had made the drive to Petit Jean to also take part in the event.

Christy Carpenter shares that goal.

Having grown up in a home filled with books and conversations about history, politics and current affairs, she wants WRI to be a spot where problems are discussed and solutions are hashed out.

At the same time, Winthrop Rockefeller’s legacy will be preserved.

Here’s part of what Jeannie Nuss wrote for The Associated Press on the day of Remnick’s visit to WRI: “After Rockefeller died, this land transformed into an agricultural mecca that operated on an invite-only basis. Over the past few years, Rockefeller’s 188 scenic acres circled back as a sort of Camp David for academics. It’s still exclusive, catering to the well-to-do with culinary classes on how to cook vegan and what to prepare for Christmas in July. Farmers plant fresh herbs and blueberries in the garden out back, and private planes land at a tiny airport down the road. But it’s open to anyone who wants to visit, free of charge, every day except Christmas.

“While most Arkansas students won’t get a chance to meet with prestigious writers or scientists, Rockefeller scribe John Ward said the intellectuals’ influence on the state will eventually trickle down to the masses.

“‘To present the David Remnicks of the world, who certainly represent the very best of journalism, is something for people to look at and shoot at,’ said Ward, who was Rockefeller’s marketing and public relations director.

Good luck, Christy.

Arkansas needs WRI to be all it can be. We’re glad you’re here.

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