by Max Brantley
PETIT JEAN MOUNTAIN, Ark. — Over 40 years ago, Arkansas’ state government could best be described as a behind-closed-doors, one-party system that limited political positions to the friends and associates of an elite few.
That was before Winthrop Rockefeller left his mark on the state.
In 1967, Rockefeller became the 37th governor of Arkansas – and the state’s first Republican governor in 94 years. His election sparked a new era of Arkansas politics, forcing both the Democratic and the Republican parties to clean themselves up in order to compete with his endeavors.
A lot of Arkansans today are unfamiliar with many of Rockefeller’s accomplishments as governor. They included bringing Arkansas the benefits of a two-party system, opening official meetings to the public through the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act of 1967, and offering blacks employment opportunities in state government jobs.
In an effort to renew Rockefeller’s political legacy with all Arkansans, the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute of the University of Arkansas System will host “WR: The Rockefeller Brand on Arkansas Politics” Saturday, May 10, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
This program is at no cost to the public but because of limited seating, pre-registration is required. It is being made possible in part by a grant from the Department of Arkansas Heritage, funded by taxpayers’ one-eighth cent conservation tax, Amendment 75. The event is part of Arkansas Heritage Month 2008, the theme of which is “Arkansas’s Political Heritage: The People Rule.”
The Rockefeller Institute, established in 2005, is located on the 188 pastoral acres that originally served as Winrock Farms, Gov. Rockefeller’s model cattle farm.
“With our historic setting, we felt it was our obligation to be a part of Heritage Month,” said program coordinator Joe Foster. “We are privileged to be able to tell the story about the Arkansas Rockefeller and his mark on politics in the state.”
As part of this program, some of Rockefeller’s closest staff members will highlight the late governor’s public life and his political contributions to the state in a panel discussion. Veteran journalist Ernest Dumas will moderate the panel discussion consisting of three of Gov. Rockefeller’s key associates: Judge Thomas Eisele, John Ward and Marion Burton.
Eisele, now judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, served as Rockefeller’s personal attorney and policy advisor from 1963-1969. Ward, an author and retired journalist, was first employed in 1964 by Rockefeller as his director of public relations. He went on to serve as campaign manager in Rockefeller’s successful gubernatorial reelection bid in 1968.
Burton, currently a Trustee of the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust, served in a number of positions for Gov. Rockefeller throughout his time in Arkansas including a legal and policy advisor, an aviation manager and a chief pilot for the governor.
The panelists will give first hand accounts of what it was like behind the scenes during Rockefeller’s service as governor of Arkansas. They will also talk about the lasting impact his political life has had on the state. The program format was designed to encourage interaction from the audience.
Other activities include an outdoor barbecue for registered attendees at the historic Boathouse on Lake Abby and the grand opening of the Legacy Gallery and Legacy Theater.
Based on a search of 10,000 photos at the Rockefeller Archives at UALR, the permanent exhibit in the Legacy Gallery entitled “Winthrop Rockefeller: a Sphere of Power and Influence Dropped into a River of Need” spans approximately 3,000 square feet. It incorporates over 300 restored and enlarged photographs into 180 murals and interpretative panels to tell the story in five areas: The Man, His Heritage, The Mountain, His Influence and His Legacy.
For the television generation, the Arkansas Rockefeller legacy is on display in the Legacy Theater. Re-mastered video documentaries of Gov. Rockefeller’s life are featured in this interactive theater that allows viewers to choose from numerous video clips focusing on different aspects of his life and legacy. The presentations – each approximately 15 minutes – are excerpted from longer films developed for various purposes.
Seating is limited, so advance registration is required. To make reservations, visit www.uawri.org and click on “REGISTER NOW” from the “Educational Programs” dropdown menu. For more information about this program, contact Joe Foster at (501) 727-6219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.