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Climbing the mountain

Rockefeller still lifts Arkansas with UA Institute.


A PLACE FOR REFLECTION: Program director Sherry Walker says the Institute provides an "immersion experience."
  • A PLACE FOR REFLECTION: Program director Sherry Walker says the Institute provides an "immersion experience."

The top of Petit Jean Mountain was an improbable spot to start a cattle farm, given its locale and lack of water.

The top of Petit Jean Mountain may seem an improbable spot for conferences on public policy and academe, given its locale hours from any population center at the end of a mountain-climbing two-lane.

But Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller piped water to the mountain top, raised his Santa Gertrudis and along the way raised up Arkansas as well. Now his legacy is working on bringing the best minds to his mountaintop farm, to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute of the University of Arkansas.

The Winthrop Rockefeller Trust has already committed $55.8 million to the Institute, some $20 million of which has gone into the renovation of the former headquarters of Winrock International, new construction and operational expenses.

What a deal for the University: a place where people can come together and think big thoughts for the future of Arkansas, in a handsome 17,000-square-foot conference center, with lodging and fine dining — all on WR.

Rockefeller stipulated in his will that his riches should be used for the education of Arkansas, and when, in 2004, Winrock International decided to move its operations from Petit Jean to offices in Washington, D.C., and Little Rock, the trust asked the University of Arkansas to submit a proposal on operating the Institute. The University had no money to offer, but it could bring its human resources to the table to design programming that would reflect the interests of the Rockefeller and benefit the state.

Since it opened in July 2005 (initially as the Winthrop Rockefeller Center), the Institute has dipped a toe in fairly disparate public programming areas, such as fine dining, painting workshops and archeology. Substantive policy talks have originated with organizations outside the Institute — such as the Arkansas Leadership Academy, the Arkansas Medical Association, the School Boards Association — or have come in collaborative events with the University of Arkansas.  

But now, the Institute, at the behest of the Rockefeller Trust, wants to take the lead, set an agenda for tackling issues of import and taking steps to implement change.

The expectation of the Trust, said board member Bob Shults, is that the Institute will develop programs “of real substance … that will benefit not just Arkansas but the region and perhaps internationally.”

Think think tank, said David Davies, the executive director (and brother of Arkansas Department of Parks Tourism director Richard Davies). For example: The Institute might want to devote resources to the many questions that the state's Hispanic population has brought to the fore. “To what extent has the state figured out how to handle it — or not figured out? Do there need to be processes or suggestions for assimilation? … That's one of several choices that the study will look at and which our board will recommend to the Trust for supplemental funding.”

Davies said the board will meet in December to settle on its final suggestions to present the Trust as early as January.

Like its mission, the Institute's physical form has been a work in progress. Renovations and “repurposing” of various buildings on the Rockefeller farm, including a studio perched on the edge of the mountain and the cattle show barns that housed Winrock International, in 2005 were followed by the construction of a 30-room lodge, a new lobby area and the opening of the River Rock Grill restaurant, which opened in 2007. Landscaping — which includes a 310-foot water feature meant to represent Petit Jean River as it flows into the Arkansas River — was completed this month.

The public has only slowly become aware of the Institute, program director Sherry Walker acknowledged, but once people find it, they come back.

The isolation is a plus, she said: There's little to distract from important business — except for the stunning views of the Arkansas River valley from the 188-acre property. “It's a true immersion experience,” Walker said. “It really does lend itself to discussion, problem-solving and consensus-building, which is what we want to foster.”

Rockefeller held some 200 conferences or meetings himself at the farm, Walker said; his own policy interests were broad, giving those now strategizing for the future on how to best honor his memory plenty to work with. Topics taken up or on tap on the mountain so far: mental health and law enforcement; small-acreage farms; water issues; energy; nanotechnology. And so on.

It's hard to imagine a nicer place to spend time in thought.

The two former cattle show barns that make up the conference center are quite a show place, all quarried slate and honey-colored wood, punctuated by two grain silos original to the site. There's a small interactive theater where films, including some Rockefeller had shot to create a record of his work on the farm and in government, can be seen. The River Rock Grill is softly lit from within and without and has a well-appointed bar (here, too, carrying out the Rockefeller tradition).

The huge furry head of Rock, Rockefeller's prize Santa Gertrudis bull, hangs over a larger theater that seats 88; this is where the Institute's Reel Stories documentary film series is held. A demonstration kitchen with theater seating is off the dining area; chefs Adam Rosenblum and John Leonardis (formerly of Imagine a Restaurant) offer the Second Saturday Chef's series classes here. In all, there are 14 meeting rooms, including the Show Barn Hall, which can seat 250.

The President's Lodge and Suites' 30 rooms are fitted with slate-floored showers, flat-screen TVs and jetted tubs. There are 83 guest rooms total on the site, the others in various older buildings, including several built by the Rockefellers for their visitors. There is a fitness center, indoor basketball and tennis courts and a boathouse.

Over in the Teaching Barn, a new building that is part of the Institute's recreation of the Westphal farmstead that Winrock Farms replaced, is a station of the UA's Arkansas Archeological Survey, which hosts monthly talks and will begin offering classes in February for amateur archeologists who'll stay a weekend at the Institute.

The curving water feature runs between large boulders inset with nooks and crannies meant to serve as places for reflection. There's also a gift shop, for acquisition.

The digitally re-mastered video of the documentaries Rockefeller filmed — the 1957 series is said to have been made in what was an unsuccessful attempt to persuade his father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., to make a trip to Arkansas — would never have been made in these politically correct days. Rockefeller's farm hands are seen grabbing the Santa Gertrudis cattle with nose hooks, yanking their heads this way and that, burning the WR icon into their hide. Rockefeller grabbed the bull by the horn literally and figuratively, ushering in an era of industrial and cultural growth in the state. The direct, no-holds-barred images are refreshing in an era of much talk, little action.

That was Rockefeller's approach to things, Walker said — to figure out what needed to be done. With its partners in the public and academic domain, in science, social and other arenas, the Institute intends, she said, “to come up with plans of action” for the future.

“Many prominent people with important things to say visited the mountain and the Rockefeller family over the years,” board member Shults said. “It has taken us awhile,” he said, to achieve its vision. But the Institute is now ready, he believes, to create a “suitable tribute and memorial” to Rockefeller. “It's going to be something we'll all be proud of.”


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