Winthrop Rockefeller (1912-1973) was a farmer, businessman, and philanthropist who was the first Republican since Reconstruction to serve as the governor of the U.S. state of Arkansas. His tenure extended for two two-year terms from 1967 to 1971.
A member of the John D. Rockefeller petroleum family and a brother of Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York and banker David Rockefeller, Winthrop Rockefeller served with distinction in World War II. In 1953, he relocated to Arkansas to establish a farm and ranch at Petit Jean Mountain in Conway County. In 1955, his later political rival, Orval E. Faubus, appointed Rockefeller to head the newly-established Arkansas Industrial Development Commission. He hence worked to recruit industries into his adopted state until 1964, when he resigned from the commission in order to challenge Faubus for reelection. The Democrat Faubus defeated Rockefeller, 57-43 percent, as U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson overpowered Barry Goldwater in Arkansas by the same margin.
Rockefeller became the Arkansas Republican national committeeman in 1961, when he replaced the attorney Wallace Townsend of Little Rock. He soon quarreled with state chairman William L. Spicer, the owner of a chain of drive-in theaters from Fort Smith, who was more conservative than the moderate-to-liberal Rockefeller. The embattled Spicer, a Barry Goldwater supporter, resigned as chairman in 1964 and was succeeded by future U.S. Representative John Paul Hammerschmidt, a Rockefeller supporter but more conservative politically than Rockefeller.
In 1966, Faubus did not seek reelection, and Rockefeller upset the Democratic gubernatorial nominee James D. Johnson of Conway in Faulkner County, known as "Justice Jim," a former member of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Rockefeller was reelected, very narrowly, in 1968, over the Democrat Marion H. Crank of Foreman in Little River County. In that same election, Arkansas cast its electoral votes for George Wallace and reelected the Democrat J. William Fulbright to the United States Senate. Only three Republicans, Jim Sheets of Siloam Springs, George E. Nowotny, Jr., of Fort Smith, and Danny L. Patrick from Faubus's Huntsville in Madison County, served in the Arkansas House of Representatives during Rockefeller's first term. In the second term Jim Caldwell of Siloam Springs became the first Arkansas Republican state senator of the 20th century, and Preston Bynum, also then of Siloam Springs, replaced Sheets in the House. Marshall Chrisman of Ozark in Johnson County served a single term in the House in Rockefeller's second term.
As governor, Rockefeller implemented a wide variety of reforms dealing with state government. Many required tax increases. He used the slogan "Arkansas Is Worth Paying For." He is also remembered for his opposition to capital punishment and his reform of the state prison system. He worked to stop illegal gambling in Hot Springs.
In 1970, Rockefeller was handily unseated by Democrat Dale Bumpers of Charleston in Franklin County. Bumpers had first defeated Faubus' comeback attempt in the Democratic primary runoff. He then ran a mostly issue-less campaign, termed by his critics as "a shoeshine and a smile." Four years later, the popular Bumpers unseated Fulbright in the senatorial primary and served thereafter in the Senate until 1999.
Rockefeller died of cancer in February 1973 in Palm Springs, California, where he had undergone treatment. His son, Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, was a Republican lieutenant governor of Arkansas from 1996 to 2006, when he died of cancer in office. The younger Rockefeller had planned to run for governor in 2006. Rockefeller's first wife and the mother of "Win Paul", as he was known, was the former Barbara "Bobo" Sears, whom Rockefeller married in 1948.
Rockefeller's second wife, Jeanette, was a three-time divorcee, who focused on mental health issues while she was the First Lady of Arkansas. Rockefeller and Jeanette, who had two children by a previous husband, divorced shortly after he left the governor's office.
Winthrop Rockefeller and his son are interred at WinRock Farms in Morrilton, Arkansas.