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Kirk Releases New Biography Covering Winthrop Rockefeller’s New York Life

Dr. John Kirk
Dr. John Kirk

Dr. John Kirk, George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History at UA Little Rock, has published a new book examining the first 44 years of former Arkansas governor Winthrop Rockefeller’s life. 

The book, “Winthrop Rockefeller: From New Yorker to Arkansawyer, 1912-1956,” was published by the University of Arkansas Press and is available online and at WordsWorth Books in Little Rock, which will host a book signing by Kirk at 6:30 p.m. April 12.

Kirk’s book represents the culmination of 12 years of research. It investigates why Rockefeller, scion of one of the most powerful families in American history, left New York to move to an Arkansas mountaintop in the 1950s. The book covers Rockefeller’s childhood and education, his rise in the oil industry, his military service during World War II, his marriage to and divorce from Barbara “Bobo” Sears, and the birth of his only child, future Arkansas lieutenant governor Win Paul Rockefeller.

Kirk ties Rockefeller’s New York life to his later work in his adopted state, where his legacy continues to be felt more than half a century after his governorship.

“Winthrop Rockefeller has a long and lasting legacy in Arkansas,” Kirk said. “His name has been imprinted on the state more than any other governor, except for perhaps Bill Clinton. When he came to the state, Rockefeller had already accumulated  a wide range of experiences and developed a wide range of expertise. That is not reflected in the current literature, which portrays him largely as the outcast black sheep of the Rockefeller family. Then, when he came to Arkansas, the myth is that he became a totally reformed character. That is a gross misrepresentation and clumsy caricature of the man. In fact, what Rockefeller accomplished in Arkansas was very much based upon  the blueprints  drawn up during his earlier life in New York.”

After a highly contentious and well publicized divorce from Sears, Rockefeller looked to start a new chapter in his life in a place where he could make a fresh start.

“He went through a costly divorce that hit all the headlines in the popular press at the time,” Kirk said. “The Rockefeller family had quite an aversion to that kind of publicity. The tempestuous divorce proceedings pushed Rockefeller away from New York.”

What pulled Rockefeller to Arkansas was the recommendation of Frank Newell, an insurance agent in Little Rock who served with Rockefeller during World War II.

“Frank Newell became one of Winthrop’s best friends and spoke about his love of Arkansas and what a great state it was,” Kirk said. “Newell said you should come down here. It was Newell who took Winthrop to Petit Jean Mountain. Winthrop decided to set up a model cattle farm there. Now part of that land is home to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, which is part of the University of Arkansas System.”

The first Republican governor of Arkansas since Reconstruction, Rockefeller developed a reputation as a progressive politician who fought for civil rights. This was demonstrated in 1968, when Rockefeller became the only Southern governor to participate in a public ceremony of mourning for the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

Rockefeller’s work with civil rights and race relations began in New York, where he served on the executive board of the National Urban League, a leading organization in the civil rights movement. He took an active and enthusiastic interest in its affairs.

“Just before he moved to Arkansas, Rockefeller donated what would today be the equivalent of $1 million to pay for the Urban League’s new national headquarters,” Kirk said. “That’s a story which hasn’t been told before, but it provides an illuminating example of how deeply he was already engaged with civil rights when he came to Arkansas.”

Kirk said this is one of many examples in the book of how Rockefeller’s early New York life is profoundly tied to his later activities in Arkansas.