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What Winthrop Rockefeller left behind

And what he didn't.



Atop Petit Jean Mountain, there's something not found anywhere else, and it's not a rare species of flora or fauna. It's a re-creation of a lieutenant governor's office.

Lieutenant governors are seldom revered. Most are barely remembered. The lieutenant governor's job is part-time at best, and even those part-time tasks are largely ceremonial. In Arkansas, the lieutenant governor presides over the state Senate when it's in session, usually a couple of months every couple of years, and he plays like he's governor when the real governor is out of town.

That's mostly what Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, known as "Win," did too, and although he held the job longer than most — 10 years — and tried harder than most to make it fulltime, his service as lieutenant governor is not the stuff of history books. Nor is it what a visitor thinks of when he looks at the replica of Win Rockefeller's state Capitol office that opened to the public this month, on Rockefeller family property at Petit Jean. We ponder not what he did, but what he might have done.

He might have followed in the footsteps of his father, Winthrop Rockefeller, by becoming governor of Arkansas. That would have been a historic event. Arkansas has never had a father-son gubernatorial combo. Win Rockefeller almost certainly would have won the Republican nomination, and possibly the general election as well. If he had his father's disadvantage of not being a natural politician, he also had his father's advantages — great wealth to invest in political campaigns, and the voters' certainty that Rockefellers don't steal. Win might have had a large impact on Arkansas political attitudes, as his father did. He might have been a moderating influence on what has become a Republican Party of extremists. Certainly he would have enhanced the Rockefeller family's already imposing reputation for public service. Besides his father, one of his uncles was governor of New York and vice president of the United States. A cousin is a United States senator from West Virginia.

But Win Rockefeller did none of those things. Instead, he, like his father, succumbed to cancer at a comparatively early age — 57 for Win, who seemed on his way to being governor, 60 for Winthrop, who lived only a couple of years after he was defeated in a try for a third term as governor.

Win Rockefeller was an only child, so if one looks for Winthrop Rockefeller's legacy, in the 100th anniversary of his birth, one bumps up sharply against what might have been. Still, the what-is, is more substantial than most people's. It includes the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute on Petit Jean. The property once was part of Winthrop Rockefeller's homestead and cattle farm. (Other parts of both homestead and farm remain in use, under the aegis of the Rockefeller family. Win Rockefeller's widow, Lisenne, and their children sometimes reside in the Petit Jean home. The principal family home is in Little Rock.) The Institute is part of the University of Arkansas System, but the U of A provides only expertise, not funding. The money came from the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust, which was established after Winthrop's death and has offices in Little Rock.

Conferences, seminars and workshops on various large issues are held year-round at the Institute, which describes itself as "a center for thought leadership." Winthrop Rockefeller always wanted some of the Petit Jean property to be used for educational purposes, according to Kathy Edgerton, the Institute's director of communications and marketing. Three issues that the Institute is emphasizing are food security, philanthropy and civic engagement, she said.

But the Institute also houses the re-creation of Win's lieutenant governor's office, and, just down the hall, a replica of the office Winthrop used at Petit Jean while he was governor. With a fleet of aircraft at his disposal, Rockefeller spent more time at Petit Jean than in Little Rock at the Capitol or the Governor's Mansion, his official residence. There's also a Winthrop Rockefeller Legacy Gallery and Theater here, containing films, photographs and tons of information. No other Arkansas governor has anything like it. The Bill Clinton Library in Little Rock is for the president, not the governor.

The gallery includes assessments of Rockefeller by former associates and others, including, notably, former governor and senator Dale Bumpers, who defeated Rockefeller in 1970 but never spoke ill of him. There's a film Rockefeller made in 1957 for his father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., who never came to Arkansas, about what the younger Rockefeller had been up to since moving to Arkansas in 1953. It's slicker than the average home movie. Rockefeller hired a Hollywood production crew, though he did the narration himself. Most of it was shot on the farm where Rockefeller raised cattle. A lot of men in cowboy hats move through. From today's vantage point, we note that most of them have cigarettes in their mouths. (A digression: Rockefeller was the first Arkansas governor to publicly admit taking a drink now and then, and stories about Rockefeller drinking circulated widely, especially among legislators. But one keen observer speculated that irregular behavior by Rockefeller might be attributable not to alcohol, but to the powerful Picayunes he smoked in quantity.)

The Rockefeller Trust also supports the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, which is headquartered in Little Rock and has for 36 years been making grants to what it considers worthy Arkansas causes. Last year alone, the Foundation gave a total of more than $6 million to 52 groups. It emphasizes certain areas in its giving, including reduction of the number of Arkansas families living below 200 percent of the federal poverty line; increasing high school, vocational school and college graduation rates, and "Increasing educational attainment and economic mobility in select communities in Arkansas."

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