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New book examines roots of former Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller

Dr. John Kirk at KUAR in Little Rock.
Author John Kirk says the first two-thirds of Winthrop Rockefeller's life hadn't been thoroughly written about so he wrote the book to fill in that gap.

John Kirk, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History, examines the first 44 years of Winthrop Rockefeller's life in his new book "Winthrop Rockefeller: from New Yorker to Arkansawyer, 1912-1956." Rockefeller served as Arkansas governor from 1967 through 1971.

KUAR News spoke with Kirk about his new book and the former governor’s impact on the state.

KUAR NEWS: What was it about Rockefeller that inspired you to write this book?

JOHN KIRK: Oh, I've always been fascinated with Rockefeller going back to the days I was researching the civil rights movement. He seems to be such an interesting person to have in Arkansas, somebody who was from one of the wealthiest families in the United States, who decided to decamp to Arkansas in 1953 to set up a new life, and that kind of contrast between his huge wealth that he brought to one of the poorest states in the union at the time was quite fascinating. I was intrigued to find out more about why he made that move to investigate life further.

What was it about Arkansas specifically that brought Rockefeller here from New York? Was he just wanting a change from New York and then he found Arkansas or did he have Arkansas in his sights and then he came here?

There are a couple of things really, there's a kind of push and pull factor. The push factor was that at the time he was going to a pretty tempestuous divorce. He married Barbara Sears in 1948. The marriage only lasted 18 months. I mean, it took four years to finalize the divorce. So it was a long protracted process that hit a lot of the popular newspaper magazine headlines at the time, and the Rockefeller family was very averse to that kind of publicity. They were quite secretive and quite private. And Rockefeller was really looking to avoid the headlines and the scandal in the press. And so he decided ultimately to leave New York. The reason he landed in Arkansas was because he could have gone anywhere. He could have said pretty much anywhere in the world. He wanted to. The reason why I ended up in Arkansas was because of a friend that he'd made in the second world war. He served alongside a Little Rock insurance agent called Frank Newell, and Newell kind of looked up to him; he was an elder brother type figure. Rockefeller in fact, tried to persuade Newell to come up to New York after the war and help work with him in his enterprises, but Newell told him that he'd settle in Arkansas before he’d moved to New York and in fact that proved to be the case. And when Winthrop wanted an escape from New York, and Newell said you should come down here.

Your book focuses on the first 44 years of Rockefeller's life. Why did you focus on that time period, which ended more than a decade before he came governor?

So I realized that in order to understand Rockefeller's life, I really had to begin by starting to write the massively missing part of his story, which was the first two thirds of his life. I feel like to really understand what Rockefeller did in Arkansas, you had to understand what made him into the person that he became, once he moved to the state. So really it was a need for a gap to be filled, and I'm one that was essential to do.

Final question on his impact on the state. What do you think his most important contribution was to the state?

I think the political transformations that he brought in the state, you know, being the first Republican governor in 94 years, was significant, but Rockefeller also put an end pretty much single handedly to the Arkansas Democratic Party's Neo-Confederate Southern Conservative Party. He would run against in 1966, Jim Johnson, who was really the last of those old segregationist candidates and Rockefeller’s time in office forced the Democratic Party to rethink that stance and in 1970, when Rockefeller ran for a third term unsuccessfully, he was beaten by Dale Bumpers, who was part of a new crop of so called New Democrats in the South.

By reading this book about Rockefeller. What can readers learn about themselves or what life lessons can they take away from this book?

Well, I think that you know, we all have personal journeys and struggles to overcome and you know, Winthrop Rockefeller was born with more than a silver spoon in his mouth, maybe a platinum spoon. He was born into this hugely wealthy and influential family, and yet, even despite that, he found his kind of goals and ideas and the values for life in a different way and a different kind of trajectory. I kind of admire him for following his convictions, and trying to become the person that he wanted to become. It would have been very easy for him to just simply sail along in New York, and rest on the laurels of his family.

Ronak Patel is a reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.