Working at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute and living atop Petit Jean Mountain, I am blessed with easy access to some of the prettiest scenic views in Arkansas. I can’t help but think that the picturesque vistas looking westward off of Petit Jean’s broad plateau is part of what kept Winthrop Rockefeller in Arkansas.
But Rockefeller’s view of Arkansas went well beyond his recognition of its natural beauty. From his farm, home and office on Petit Jean, he could see not just the physical attributes of the Arkansas River Valley, he cast a vision for the future of a state that, in the 1950s and ‘60s, was hanging in the balance.
That vision led him into politics, and 50 years ago today, he was sworn in as the 37th governor of the state of Arkansas.
A lot has changed in Arkansas in 50 years, and much of the positive change that has happened here can be traced back to the two terms that Winthrop Rockefeller served as governor.
Today I was privileged to sit in the gallery as Gov. Asa Hutchinson delivered his State of the State address to a joint assembly of the Arkansas Legislature. At the suggestion of our director of programs, Janet Harris, we reached out to the governor’s office to remind them that the State of the State address happened to fall on the monumental anniversary of Winthrop Rockefeller’s inauguration.
Gov. Hutchinson opened his address with a quote from Rockefeller’s inaugural speech:
“It is true that you have been allotted an unusual moment in the history of Arkansas, as have I … a moment subject to special scrutiny … laden with special challenges … and rich with special opportunities. I believe that together we can become worthy of the moment.”
Hutchinson followed that quote with a charge to the Legislature: “Today, we have our own moment in history, and we can only be worthy of this moment if we work together.”
Commitment to a collaborative approach to problem-solving was a hallmark of not just Winthrop Rockefeller’s administration, but his entire life. I was proud to hear that sentiment echoed 50 years from the time he first took office.
I was also struck by some of the parallels between the two governors’ priorities. Hutchinson today spoke of the need for more efficiency in government. This was also a priority of Rockefeller, who dramatically reduced the total number of state agencies during his tenure as governor.
Hutchinson touted recent economic development efforts throughout the state, citing Sig Sauer in Jacksonville, Sun Paper in Arkadelphia, Metova in Conway, Mars Petcare in Fort Smith, FMH Conveyors in Jonesboro and J.B. Hunt in Rogers. Before running for governor, Rockefeller served as the chair of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, a precursor to today’s Economic Development Commission. He helped usher in more than 600 new industries in Arkansas, resulting in more than $250 million in added salaries.
I’d like to think that if Gov. Rockefeller could have heard today’s State of the State address, he would be proud to hear how far we’ve come as a state. But he would also roll up his sleeves and prepare for the work yet to be done.
A mentor once told me that if I wanted to truly make a difference in my life, I needed to become a part of something that would outlive me. He also suggested that if we hope to see our work completed, we simply have not asked big enough questions. Winthrop Rockefeller personified this philosophy and dared to ask big questions. He took on challenges that he knew he would not live to see conquered.
As I reflect on the work of the Institute and on the indelible legacy of Winthrop Rockefeller on this important anniversary, I am inspired by his accomplishments, but also by his heart and his approach—which was to engage and empower others and to encourage them to aim high toward answering the big questions.