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Civil discourse on Petit Jean

I can understand why the late Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller loved it so here.

It’s a Tuesday morning, and I’m the only person at Stout’s Point, the easternmost tip of Petit Jean Mountain. It’s quiet. I listen to the oak leaves rustling in the wind and a couple of crows who insist on making their presence known.

This also once was known as Nelson Point. Daniel Nelson (who’s not an ancestor as far as I can tell) built his home here in the early 1890s and planted apple orchards. Those orchards later failed, and the Nelson land was sold. The name Stout’s Point honors William Cummings Stout, who in 1849 had become the first ordained Episcopal priest in the state. There was a hotel here — the Hotel Petit Jean — at one time. It became part of a YMCA camp in 1920. That camp ceased operations in the 1940s, and the land was purchased by the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas, which now operates Camp Mitchell atop Petit Jean and lets the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism use Stout’s Point as a park.

“Petit Jean claimed 100 family farms by 1900,” Donald Higgins writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “For perhaps 75 years, small farm agriculture and orchards flourished on Petit Jean Mountain. By the late 1920s, however, a crash in cotton prices, droughts, blight and insect infestations, combined with poor soil management practices, took a toll on family farms. Petit Jean’s population decreased, making land available for other uses.

“Petit Jean’s Dr. T.W. Hardison had bigger ideas and in 1921 influenced Congressman Henderson Madison Jacoway to introduce House Resolution 9086 in the U.S. House of Representatives, creating Petit Jean National Park with the mountain’s rugged Seven Hollows area as its foundation. The action failed, but shortly thereafter, in 1923, Hardison led an effort by a group of local businessmen to donate land in Cedar Creek Canyon to become Arkansas’ first state park by Act 276 of the Legislature.

“Depopulation during the Great Depression and World War II struck hard at the mountain community, but as farming diminished, new residents and recreation enthusiasts took up the slack. The Civilian Conservation Corps-constructed park infrastructure drew increasing numbers of visitors, and various commercial enterprises blossomed.”

In 1953, Rockefeller began purchasing what essentially was worn-out scrubland that once had been used to raise cotton. Locals found jobs that paid far better than what they could get elsewhere in Conway County. It was unusual for working-class whites to take orders from a black man in the early 1950s, but Rockefeller foreman Jimmy Hudson quickly earned the respect of those who worked for him.

Land was cleared, grass was planted, fences were erected and an irrigation system was installed. Rockefeller brought the famed Santa Gertrudis breed of cattle to Arkansas. The tropical beef breed had been developed in south Texas. The breed was named for the Spanish land grant in south Texas where Richard King established the King Ranch. When the breed was recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1940, it became the first beef breed to have been developed in the United States.

In his 2004 book “Winthrop Rockefeller, Philanthropist,” former aide John Ward wrote: “Winrock Farms was on the world stage as far as cattle breeding and research were concerned, and this was just what Rockefeller intended. From its inception, Winrock served to provide education, expertise and guidance to the many people who came in contact with it. Rockefeller was especially proud of the quality of the operation, from the scientific to the utterly practical, and the farm’s contributions to development of better beef cattle was widely known and appreciated.

“His annual cattle sale at the farm attracted buyers and interested participants from throughout the world who needed fine Santa Gertrudis breeding stock. … Representatives of the King Ranch were regular buyers at the sale, as was Rockefeller at their sales in Texas. To some degree, Rockefeller buying King Ranch stock at high prices and King Ranch doing the same at the Winrock cattle sale was a bit of public relations, but it was a source of amazement to those who watched prices of $40,000 to $50,000 being paid for outstanding bulls.

“Winrock had intern programs for youth and other opportunities for young and old alike to gain knowledge and experience, and it pleased him to see the acceptance and continuing development of the livestock and science surrounding it he so carefully husbanded at the farm.

“From that operation evolved the Winrock International Livestock Research and Training Center, established in response to Rockefeller’s request in his will that trustees of his estate be venturesome and innovative in creating and supporting institutions that would help people help themselves. A decade later, a larger entity was created from combining with Winrock two other organizations also rooted in the philanthropic tradition of the Rockefeller family. One was the Agricultural Development Council, which grew from an organization founded by Winthrop’s eldest brother, John. It was designed to stimulate and support economic training related to human welfare in rural Asia. The other was the International Agricultural Development Service, created with initial support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Its aim was to provide services to developing countries that wanted to strengthen their agricultural research and development programs. Together they became the Winrock International Institute for Agricultural Development. The Winthrop Rockefeller Trust put more than $85 million into it during its first decade of existence.”

Marion Burton, who has long helped manage the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust, said the late governor viewed Arkansas “as a place where he could make a difference. I think he was frustrated with where he had been living. I think he simply got tired of the routines.”

More than anything, Rockefeller wanted his ranch atop Petit Jean Mountain to be a place where people would come, discuss ideas and have time for contemplation in a relaxing setting away from their offices.

Former journalist and Rockefeller friend Dorthy Stuck said Rockefeller “found a certain amount of peace right here on this mountain. The big task now is to keep his legacy alive.”

That job has fallen to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, which the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust and the University of Arkansas joined forces to create when Winrock International moved its offices from Petit Jean to Little Rock’s Riverdale neighborhood. More than $20 million was spent to create a world-class conference center atop the mountain. A gallery and interactive theater tell the story of the Rockefeller years in Arkansas. The gallery is titled “Winthrop Rockefeller: A Sphere of Power and Influence Dropped Into a River of Need.”

Those involved in the institute’s creation have shared with me from time to time their frustration in finding a focus. In its early years, WRI tried to be all things to all people and met with limited success. In 2011, the chief operating officer of the Paley Center for Media in New York City, Christy Carpenter, was hired and tasked with increasing WRI’s national profile. Carpenter brought along her husband, actor Robert Walden, a New York native best known for his role as Joe Rossi on the television series “Lou Grant.”

Carpenter’s parents were two Washington-based journalists, Les and Liz Carpenter of the Carpenter News Bureau. Liz Carpenter went to work for Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson and was with LBJ on that November day in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. It was Liz Carpenter who wrote the short statement Johnson released after being sworn in as president aboard Air Force One at Love Field.

Christy Carpenter seemed to have the pedigree needed to advance WRI. But by the spring of 2013, Carpenter — a city girl at heart — had tired of the remoteness of Petit Jean Mountain. Back at square one, the WRI trustees decided this time to go with an Arkansan who might stay around awhile. In December 2013, it was announced that Marta Loyd of Greenwood, the vice chancellor for university advancement at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, had been hired as WRI’s executive director.

Loyd worked at UAFS for 17 years. A dozen of those years were as vice chancellor. She had headed the school’s foundation since 2002 and helped raised the money needed to transform Westark Community College into UAFS.

During a luncheon speech last year, Loyd said: “I put very little serious thought into my future when I was young. I wanted to be a dental hygienist because I could work part time, make a good wage and be a wife and mother. I accomplished all of that by the age of 26.”

In a story about the WRI executive director, Jeff LeMaster wrote: “Her opportunity to step into higher education came when Westark was hiring a part-time continuing education program coordinator. The job requirements were a bachelor’s degree and organizational experience. Citing her organizational experience from church committees and the school PTA, Marta got the job. Not too long after, she was approached about helping to start a dental hygiene school at the college. She took that on for no extra pay but proved herself and made connections with key people in the college’s administration.

“Along the way, the university earned her loyalty by giving her an opportunity to stay home and care for her son after he was involved in an accident that almost claimed one of his eyes. Marta had to take off two weeks to care for him, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. It fell right when she was supposed to finish and submit an application for the new dental hygiene school, and her taking off the two weeks meant a six-month delay in the project. But the college’s president at the time, Joel Stubblefield, didn’t hesitate in telling Marta to take the time off. … She has never forgotten that. In her own words, Marta determined then ‘that if I ever became a leader, I would do all I could to make sure people didn’t have to choose between work and family.’

“After returning to work and successfully starting the dental hygiene school, Marta was hired to work in development. The vice chancellor for university advancement at the time, Dr. Carolyn Moore, brought Marta under her wing, promising her she would teach her everything she knew about development and that someday Marta could take her job. Moore also encouraged Marta to pursue advanced degrees, first her master’s in educational leadership and then her doctorate in educational leadership and policy analysis.”

Loyd has proved to be a good fit at WRI, where she has raised staff morale and found ways to use the mountaintop property to its highest potential. She also has ensured that the Winthrop Rockefeller legacy is never forgotten.

“It’s ingrained in the culture here,” LeMaster, WRI’s director of communications and marketing, says. “There’s nothing we do that doesn’t recognize the impact he had on this state. We’re always mindful of his legacy.”

Janet Harris, WRI’s director of programs, puts it this way: “You can feel Gov. Rockefeller’s presence here. He chose Arkansas as his home and believed so strongly in the potential of this state. We want people to come here and see the possibilities for what Arkansas can be.”

Rockefeller loved it when national and world leaders would visit his ranch and say, “I had no idea there was anything like this in Arkansas.”

Loyd says she now smiles when she hears WRI visitors express amazement at how nice the facility is.

LeMaster says that one of the best things about Rockefeller is that he built the Republican Party in Arkansas while at the same time forcing the Democratic Party to modernize. Because of that, both Republicans and Democrats claim his legacy.

Loyd, LeMaster and Harris say Petit Jean is a place where people can unwind and think. It’s a place where partisan Republicans and Democrats can get together, debate issues in a thoughtful manner and decide on a path forward for the state.

“It’s quiet here,” Harris says. “It forces people to get to know each other.”

I wrote a post on this blog back in May 2010 that closed this way: “Arkansas needs a place such as the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, a secluded spot where we can gather to examine our past, debate our current problems and design our future. I can’t help but believe WR would be proud of what has become of the ranch he called home for almost two decades.”

There have been bumps in the road in the more than seven years since that was written. But I still believe WR would be proud, especially now that the institute that bears his name has found its focus.

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