Editor's note: A new generation of the Rockefeller family in Arkansas is coming into his own. On the 100th anniversary of his grandfather’s birth, Will Rockefeller opens up on the legacy of his birthright and the example set by those who preceded him.
Talk Business Quarterly contributing writer Steve Brawner caught up with Will Rockefeller for a conversation on the political past, present and future.
TBQ: This is the 100-year anniversary of your grandfather’s birth. Is it weird to talk so much about a guy you never met?
Will Rockefeller: A little bit. Of course, my grandfather died years before I was born, and while I didn’t really know him personally, I know him from listening to my father and various family members recount their memories of him. People out around the state who upon learning who I am all have a story to tell about him, whether it was meeting him on a campaign stop or a child who went to Morrilton Elementary when he built it, just all sorts of things. And so as I’ve begun my professional career, I’ve read more about him and his impact on the state and the citizens of Arkansas. … It’s interesting because though I didn’t know him as a person, I feel a connection. I know there’s a connection there that can be traced directly through my father back to him.
TBQ: Are there any specific parts of his story that you have found instructional or inspiring — an example to follow?
Rockefeller: Both he and Dad, I guess, were very personal individuals in that they weren’t quite comfortable in the public sphere even though the family’s a very public family, even though they were both very public figures whether they were actually in the public arena in government or outside of it. Just the mere fact that he was a Rockefeller in Arkansas, he was a very public figure, but Dad taught me that life is all about relationships, and the reason everyone has a story about him and Dad was because of the personal relationships that they developed. I’ve heard stories about how Winthrop was very uncomfortable giving speeches and being in large crowds, but when he talked to someone one-on-one, that it was really great, they had all his time and his attention, and that he was really devoted to [that conversation]. And I think that personal connection and the personal relationships they built really made a difference in the
lives of individuals, great and small.
TBQ: When your grandfather came to Arkansas, there was no Republican Party to speak of. This year, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, it might become the majority party. Have you thought about that?
Rockefeller: Well, one of the biggest things holding Arkansas back, my grandfather noted, was the lack of a two-party system, and there’s been a lot of talk over the course of the last year [centered around the questions:] Would Winthrop Rockefeller fit into today’s Republican Party? Would he be considered a Republican today? And both sides of the aisle, both Republicans and Democrats, have really tried to hammer out that issue. I’m not going to talk about that.
But what Winthrop saw when he moved to the state was the lack of a two-party system, the competition of ideas, the marketplace of ideas. The lack of that marketplace was a detriment to Arkansas. He could have easily run as a Democrat in the state and won by a landslide. His platform didn’t have to change. His thought process didn’t have to change, or his way of thinking wouldn’t have changed. His ideas wouldn’t have changed. But he didn’t. He ran as a Republican because he recognized that the competition of a two-party system and one set of ideas competing with another to create the best outcome, or if not the best outcome, to create an arena where competing ideas could be debated, discussed, hashed out and hammered out creates the best solution available; that was his intent. And so it’s interesting to see that there have been great strides, since Winthrop was governor, to achieve an equal two-party system in Arkansas. I think we’re starting to see that occur. I know a lot of the Democratic governors after him attributed some of their success to him, that he laid the foundation for a lot of the reforms that they were able to implement that probably wouldn’t have been able to be implemented without his, I guess, visionary leadership. I think this is just another manifestation of that, that what he envisioned for Arkansas is finally coming true.”
There's much more to this interview from interviewer Steve Brawner, including whether or not Will Rockefeller may ultimately make a run for public office. Read more here.