As governor, Winthrop Rockefeller brought economic, cultural, and political change to Arkansas. “W. R.” or “Win,” as he was known, brought an end to the political organization of former Governor Orval E. Faubus and created a political environment that produced moderate leaders like Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, and Bill Clinton. Rockefeller’s personal belief in racial equality became well known, and he ushered in an era that saw large numbers of African Americans elevated to high positions in state government. Rockefeller was a “transitional leader” in the sense that he helped discredit the “Old Guard” domination of the Faubus years and, in so doing, made Arkansans more receptive to political and social change.
Winthrop Rockefeller was born on May 1, 1912, in New York City to John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. The fifth of six children, Winthrop was not given a middle name. Winthrop’s grandfather, John D. Rockefeller, was the founder of Standard Oil Company—and a very rich man by the time his grandson was born.
Winthrop grew up a privileged child, with private tutors and attendance at Lincoln School at Columbia University Teachers College. He also attended Loomis School, another private preparatory school in Windsor, Connecticut. Rockefeller’s ease with the French language, which came in handy from time to time during his administration, betrayed his prep school education. Although popular with his classmates, Rockefeller withdrew from Yale University (where he had studied from 1931 to 1934) during his third year without taking a degree.
Rockefeller was unwilling to take a position at the top of the family oil empire immediately, so he took a job as an apprentice roughneck in the oil fields. Rockefeller later considered this to be the happiest years of his life. In 1937, he abandoned his independence and took a position with Socony-Vacuum, an oil company that grew out of the family’s Standard Oil of New York.
Rockefeller’s insistence on leading a lifestyle different from the family model continued during the World War II years, when he enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army on January 22, 1941, nearly a year before hostilities began. After completing Officer Candidate School, Rockefeller was given the rank of second lieutenant and became a machinegun instructor at Fort Benning, Georgia. In August 1942, Rockefeller was named commander of H Company, 305th Infantry Regiment, Seventy-seventh Division, Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He was promoted to captain in December 1942 and to major in November 1943.
A swashbuckling commander with a handlebar mustache, Rockefeller loved his World War II career. He saw considerable action in the south Pacific, including participating in the Battle of Guam and the invasion of Okinawa, where he suffered burns when his transport was hit by a kamikaze. He left the army with the rank of lieutenant colonel, having received the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Purple Heart.
Rockefeller’s years after World War II were not happy ones. Still working at Socony-Vacuum, he chaffed at the restrictive lifestyle expected of him and his siblings. A heavy drinker known for his playboy lifestyle, Rockefeller often frequented chic cafes late at night with a movie star on his arm. He abruptly married an attractive blonde divorcee named Barbara “Bobo” Sears on Valentine’s Day in 1948. Soon they were the parents of a son, Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, but the marriage dissolved within a year.
Rockefeller fled to the very antithesis of New York chic society in early 1953, visiting an old army friend from Little Rock (Pulaski County), businessman Frank Newell. In less than a year, Rockefeller bought a large amount of land atop Petit Jean Mountain near Morrilton (Conway County), which he named Winrock Farms and developed into a showplace home.
Arkansans welcomed Rockefeller, and he quickly developed deep roots. He and his second wife, Jeannette Edris Rockefeller, were especially supportive of the Arkansas Arts Center. The Rockwin Fund provided support for worthy causes across the state.
It did not take long for Rockefeller to attract the attention of Governor Orval Faubus. Desperate to build Arkansas’s stagnant economy, Faubus named Rockefeller to the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission (now the Arkansas Department of Economic Development) in 1955. Rockefeller took this work seriously, and by the time he left the commission after nine years, Arkansas had undergone a remarkable economic transformation. He claimed credit for bringing more than 600 new industrial plants to Arkansas, providing 90,000 new jobs. Industrial employment grew by 47.5 percent, and manufacturing wages grew by eighty-eight percent, compared to a national rise of thirty-six percent.
Rockefeller’s success with economic development, not to mention his famous name and vast fortune, brought him into politics. A Republican by family tradition, Rockefeller was appalled at the political climate in Arkansas. State government was controlled by the Democratic Party, but most of the real power rested in the hands of Governor Faubus. Having been in office for a decade by 1964, Faubus had used his appointive and patronage powers to build a seemingly invincible political empire.
Rockefeller mounted a strong campaign against Faubus in 1964, but Arkansas stayed with the Democratic Party that year by a vote of fifty-six percent for Faubus. Rockefeller quickly announced that he would be a candidate again in 1966.
The election of 1966 was a watershed in Arkansas political history, for it not only saw the election of the state’s first Republican governor since 1872, as well as a Republican U.S. congressman in northwest Arkansas, but it was an election in which black voters cast the deciding vote. The segregationist wing of the state Democratic Party mustered a final victory by nominating former Supreme Court justice James D. (Jim) Johnson, a protégé of segregationist presidential candidate and Alabama governor, George C. Wallace. While Rockefeller welcomed black votes, Johnson refused to shake hands with black citizens. In the end, Rockefeller won with fifty-four percent of the vote.