Winthrop Rockefeller, Philanthropist: A Life of Change
by John L. Ward
Arkansas Press, 2004
200 pp., $29.95
Almost every family has a black sheep, and the Rockefellers are no exception. Winthrop Rockefeller (1912-1973)—two-term governor of Arkansas, lifelong philanthropist, and grandson of Standard Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller—seemed aware of his black sheep status early in life, especially when being hectored by his three rambunctious brothers. One, David, artfully captures Winthrop’s childhood plight in his 2002 Memoirs: “Nelson and Laurance were a club to which [Winthrop] wasn’t invited. I, three years his junior, was a club he didn’t want to join. He was teased unmercifully by them and gave me full measure of the grief they inflicted on him. Win did not have a particularly happy childhood.”
In Winthrop Rockefeller, Philanthropist: A Life of Change, John L. Ward keeps the black sheep label front and center. It’s an unfortunate decision. For though Win, as his family called him, clearly struggled with feelings of misplacement early in life, his grantmaking in Arkansas suggests a man who had come to terms with both himself and his wealth.
Win’s rebellion against his family began in 1934 when he dropped out of Yale—David Rockefeller’s Memoirs say he was expelled—and went to work as a roughneck in the Texas oil fields. He worked there several years before returning to New York in 1937, where he became involved with his brother Nelson in the Greater New York Fund. What started out as a way to meet new acquaintances after being away from New York City turned into a rather serious job, and Win soon found himself, at age 25, responding single-handedly to the requests of 450-odd charitable organizations. It was his first real experience raising money and organizing others to do so.
Win, however, wouldn’t remain in New York for long. In January 1941, he enlisted in the Army as a private, and during World War II he participated in the assault on Okinawa. En route to Okinawa aboard the troop transport Henrico, Win was wounded in a kamikaze attack. He had attained the rank of lieutenant colonel by the time of his discharge in 1946 and had received, among other decorations, the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Purple Heart.
Ward inexplicably omits any discussion of this important part of Win’s life. Instead, he jumps ahead to the year 1953, when, at the age of 41, Win decided he needed a change and settled permanently in Arkansas, where he purchased 927 acres atop the picturesque Petit Jean Mountain, 60 miles west of Little Rock. There he built a stunning homestead, Winrock Farms, and turned it into an internationally recognized cattle operation still in operation today.
Why Win chose to live in Arkansas is not answered by Ward, though he suggests Win did so because he badly wanted to please his parents. Ward tells us that Win and his five siblings were constantly reminded that “as Rockefellers they had a special obligation to others.” By choosing a state that was exceedingly poor—not just monetarily, but also in attitude—Ward implies that Win felt he could fulfill his parents’ teaching. Perhaps, but on this point as on many others Ward’s analysis leaves the reader cold. After all, Win arrived in Arkansas as a grown man who had known success and suffering in World War II; he was no mere child chaffing under his father’s watchful eye. It seems just as likely Win chose Arkansas because there he could develop the one business he had grown fond of: ranching. How he became interested is anyone’s guess, because Ward also remains silent on this topic.
Admittedly, what brought him to Arkansas is less significant than the impact he had on the state. In his 20 years there, Rockefeller championed civil rights, brought the fine arts to Little Rock, financed medical clinics in some of the state’s poorest counties, and performed countless other charitable acts. The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation (informally known as the Rockwin Fund), which was established in 1974, honors Win’s memory by continuing to fund in these areas.
In civil rights, Win made his greatest impact not as a philanthropist, but as governor. He was the first Republican elected in nearly a century, and before he took office for the first of two terms in 1967, blacks suffered thorough-going segregation. In ways symbolic and significant, Win set out to change this. Symbolically, as the new governor Win immediately altered the practice of excluding blacks from eating at the cafeteria in the state capitol. Significantly, he placed blacks in more important and visible jobs in the state government. As a donor, he also made gifts to black causes, churches, and colleges throughout his lifetime and successfully integrated Arkansas’ public schools.
Win was equally as passionate for the arts, and he hoped to spur the interest of his fellow citizens by building the Arkansas Arts Center. He and wife Jeannette visited 19 different communities in 21 days to raise money and build interest in the arts center, which opened in 1963. Today the center, its related Decorative Arts Center, and its traveling shows and performances, are attracting some 350,000 visitors a year.
Rockefeller is also credited with helping to modernize health care in Arkansas. He set out in 1955 to establish a health center in one of the poorest counties in Arkansas-Perry. Perry County had no ambulances, no hospitals, and no doctors licensed by the Arkansas Medical Society until Rockefeller, using previous experience as chairman of the board of New York University Medical Center, developed for Perry a relationship with the University of Arkansas Medical Center.
“There was an optimistic spirit to his giving. He didn’t write checks to cleanse a guilty conscience like slapping away a mosquito,” Rockefeller’s only son, Winthrop Paul, writes of his father in the book’s Foreword. (Winthrop Paul Rockefeller today serves as lieutenant governor of Arkansas.)
Hearing Rockefeller’s immediate family speak of his character is revealing, and it’s unfortunate we don’t hear their voices more often. Only in the brief introduction do we begin to get at Win’s idiosyncrasies. There we learn of his alcoholism, his troubled marriages, and the rumors surrounding them. We also learn of Win’s struggle to gain his parents’ acceptance. The book could also use more anecdotes—like the one about the man who wrote a letter to Rockefeller asking for a Buick Electra. The writer even listed all the accessories he wanted the car to have. Billy Apple, an accountant in Rockefeller’s personal office, said Rockefeller never complained about giving and considered even the brashest of requests (although he did not honor that one).
Instead of these engaging bits and pieces, we are given only dry facts by Ward, who served as Win’s campaign manager and longtime speechwriter. The chapter devoted entirely to the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, for example, describes only how much money he donated, to whom, and in what year—the exact same information that’s included in the book’s appendices in chart form.
Winthrop Rockefeller “used his wealth, his leadership, his significant connections for the benefit of Arkansas, and it paid off for Arkansas big time,” Ward concludes. While the book rightly trumpets Rockefeller’s generosity—he gave away some $20 million out of his own pocket during his lifetime—it never really allows us more than a glimpse into the philanthropist’s personal life. A good biography should reveal the depth of its subject’s character, not just the depth of his pockets.
Erin Montgomery is a writer at the Weekly Standard.