HIGH PROFILE: Winthrop Paul Rockefeller Jr. lives up to family name

The Rockefeller name has become synonymous with charitable giving. Win Rockefeller Jr. is living up to that reputation.

“I’m not my dad. I’m not in the limelight like my dad was, and that’s absolutely perfect. I’ve been blessed with a name that gives me easier access to people and opportunities other people don’t have. My dad said, ‘When you’re blessed and you have a lot, you should consider giving back. It’s not a burden or an obligation. Help your fellow man.’”
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
“I’m not my dad. I’m not in the limelight like my dad was, and that’s absolutely perfect. I’ve been blessed with a name that gives me easier access to people and opportunities other people don’t have. My dad said, ‘When you’re blessed and you have a lot, you should consider giving back. It’s not a burden or an obligation. Help your fellow man.’” (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Christmas 1988 was coming. Winthrop Paul "Win" Rockefeller Jr., his parents and his two older sisters got into the family SUV and headed to Little Rock's Highland Park neighborhood. They carried with them presents the kids had picked out for four underprivileged families.

The haves were delivering to the have-nots. Win Rockefeller's visit to Highland Park, with its widespread poverty, had made an impression. Each Rockefeller child had their own bedroom; the people they were visiting lived in a house that totaled two rooms and a bathroom. It was the first time he saw that other people did not live like he did.

Those delivering gifts were members of a legendary family whose name epitomizes wealth. Those receiving gifts were poor but happy, he saw. The Rockefeller parents were also delivering a life's lesson to their children: They wanted, in the words of the son, to keep them grounded and teach them that with wealth comes responsibility: If we could, we should.

"My father wanted me to understand that my name was not who I am," Win Rockefeller says.

Win Rockefeller is 44 years old now. His father, Arkansas' former lieutenant governor, died before his time, of cancer. The son, who early on didn't know what his place should be, and his siblings, have followed the family mantra that stretches back five generations, to his great-great-grandfather, John D. Rockefeller: To whom much is given, much is expected. Win Rockefeller and his wife have joined the list of Rockefeller philanthropists.

"I have always seen the Arkansas branch of the Rockefeller family as being the ennobled," historian and author Gary Joiner says. "They saw public service and philanthropy as the No. 1 thing they could do. What he said about his name is perfect: It's the name that opens doors, but who you are is how you deal with those doors when they are opened."


Over the course of more than a century, Rockefeller was a name that could inspire pride and dread.

John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, created an industrial empire of unprecedented scale. Along the way, he crushed his competitors and amassed a fortune that to many embodied corporate greed -- then gave away much of that fortune.

His dutiful son, John D. Rockefeller Jr., devoted his life to redeeming the family's name. His name became synonymous with philanthropy, like medical research, education and money for national parks.

Rockefeller Jr. had five sons. Four stayed in New York and made names in their own rights in philanthropy, conservation, politics and finance.

The fourth son, Winthrop, did not follow the path set out for him. He worked as a roughneck in the Texas oil fields before winding up in Arkansas with a homestead and cattle farm on Petit Jean Mountain. Winthrop would become Arkansas' first Republican governor since Reconstruction and worked to bridge racial divides and promote economic development and prison reform.

Winthrop's only son, Winthrop Paul "Win" Rockefeller, would become lieutenant governor for 10 years. A businessman and philanthropist in his own right, political analysts point to what might have been with Rockefeller. He had announced his candidacy for governor but bowed out in July 2005, citing a blood disorder that can develop into leukemia if left untreated. He died in July 2006.


Rockefeller's son by his first marriage, Win Jr., was born in Little Rock in 1976. Despite having a famous last name, Rockefeller says he didn't know his family was wealthy until he heard it at school. Some kids teased him. If he asked to borrow a pencil, they would say, "You don't own a pencil factory?"

"I did not always know (we were wealthy)," he said, noting his parents had a one-pair limit and a $50 cap on what he could pay for Nike basketball shoes.


“We had no allowances; you had to work around the house, like yard work, for money. They kept an eye on spending. There was always the question of, ‘Do you need that?’” (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

"They very much downplayed it. We had no allowances; you had to work around the house, like yard work, for money. They kept an eye on spending. There was always the question of, 'Do you need that?'"

But he was not like other kids. Bodyguards took him to school and accompanied him on field trips; his father was on somebody's hit list. An author who came to school to talk about Arkansas history asked to see Win after class to give him a book that told about his grandfather.

Rockefeller headed to boarding school in Delaware when he was in high school. He was attending the University of Delaware when he decided to come back to Arkansas. His father was entering politics. He enrolled in Hendrix College.

The rich kid had no off-campus apartment. He and his roommate discussed getting a portable hot tub for their dorm room but abandoned the idea for safety reasons. He wound up in a single-occupancy dorm room not as wide as a lot of hot tubs.

Rockefeller got a degree in elementary education in 2000. His parents had founded a Little Rock school for children with developmental disabilities, the Academy at Riverdale, and he became a teacher there.

His father's death in 2006 changed things. He would leave education and begin to learn about business and philanthropy.

"I wasn't that fully involved prior to my dad's passing," Rockefeller says. "I kind of had to grow up. Part of that was trying to figure out what my place was. Immediately, people said, 'You have big shoes to fill.' I didn't know where I fit in.

"My dad never said I had to do something [in particular]; it was more of what I should be doing -- should I be more socially involved and in business? I hadn't given it much thought. It was that nagging question of what do I need to be doing and where can I impact people."

He would eventually get a partner -- but not for half a decade. Rockefeller had met Natalie Hunter in 2005 at a gym. They dated briefly and had kept in touch through texts. But his father had died and Rockefeller says he had "shut down" and wasn't ready to get serious. That changed five years later when Hunter, who had moved back home to Missouri, asked what he was doing for New Year's Eve. They married one year later when he was 35.

"My dad said, 'Don't get married until you're 35; you won't be ready.' Getting married and having kids changes everything," he says as he goes through a pickup line to get lunch for his sons, 7-year-old fraternal twins, then takes it to the family home on 16 acres west of Little Rock.


Rockefeller's grandfather died of cancer at the age of 60. It claimed his father at 57. Two early deaths in his family is not lost on Rockefeller, who describes himself as healthy throughout his life. He says he has discussed that with his wife, who pushes him to get yearly physicals.

The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, established with money the former governor left in his will, for more than 40 years has supported causes such as education, economic mobility and social and ethnic equality. It is required to give $4 million to $6 million a year to causes.

The family has provided millions to what is now the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, a cancer treatment and research center at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Rockefeller and his wife will chair the Cancer Institute's first televised fundraiser on Sept. 2.

Three of Rockefeller's pet causes are cancer research, support for survivors of domestic violence and expanding the availability of broadband in Arkansas, which has huge areas with no high-speed internet service.

It's a page from the Rockefeller family playbook: Choose causes whose work means something to you and, when possible, you know firsthand -- even if, as in Rockefeller's case, you sometimes have to do a hip-hop routine or go down a catwalk at a fundraiser.

"There is a first-rate cancer center named after a man that never got the benefit of being able to take advantage of it," Rockefeller says.

Historian Joiner says the commitment to expanding broadband could be one of the biggest legacies in Arkansas.

"In the digital age, if you don't have access to internet, you might as well be a serf; you are not going to get above an average education," Joiner says. "If there's no broadband at school, how can the teachers and students keep up with the demands of an integrated society?"


Rockefeller, a Republican, married into a family that has been involved in Democratic Party politics in Missouri for four generations. The lack of bipartisanship in Washington does not spill over to the Rockefeller home, he says.

"We both have the mentality of learning both sides," he says.

A great-uncle, Nelson Rockefeller, was governor of New York and vice president. A second cousin, Jay Rockefeller, was a five-term U.S. senator from West Virginia. But a third generation of Rockefellers in Arkansas politics will have to be one of his younger half-brothers, one of whom used to be a staff member for a U.S. senator and "is built for politics."

"I have no desire to run for office," Rockefeller says, adding he is not a glad-hander. "I have two young sons. I'm happy to support my brothers should they do so -- or my wife should she decide to."


The Rockefeller family fortune today is spread among approximately 174 heirs nationwide. Forbes magazine lists no Rockefellers among its 400 wealthiest Americans today.

But they remain Rockefellers, and wealth has its privileges. Win Rockefeller has a holding company that includes real estate and investments and estimates he spends 30%-50% of his time on philanthropy. His hobbies include a sports car club and his Chevrolet Corvette, target shooting and sailing. He collects books about John D. Rockefeller.

In describing his grandfather, the former governor, Rockefeller says wealth was irrelevant to him and he wanted more than anything to fit in. But he acknowledges that, even today, it can be hard for people to relate to a Rockefeller.

"Part of that barrier was just the name," he says. "There are a lot of assumptions about what somebody in this family is going to act like -- whether they feel entitled or are snobby. It's just perception, and you have to change that perception of what people have of you. Most people say, 'You are not what I thought.'"

Daniel Robinson, a Central Arkansas banker, has known Rockefeller since college and they support each other's causes today. He says Rockefeller was no different from others in those classes: They needed to meet people, set priorities and figure out what they wanted to be.

"I think his life's journey has proven that he is much more than just a name," Robinson says. "He is involved in multiple businesses and local nonprofit organizations. If you want to know what is most important to him these days, just ask him how his boys are doing."

Last year, Rockefeller stood before an audience of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and spoke of his grandfather's endeavors, telling them "he was a man who took his own path. I'd like to think I am that man. But we'll see."

Rockefeller says he did not know his grandfather, and the man he admires most is his father, who wrote him a letter when he was 16. It was another life's lesson from the former lieutenant governor who extolled the virtues of a Boy Scout and sometimes wore his Scout uniform to the state Capitol.

"It was a letter like one where you sit down and (talk about) how to live your life," he says. "Make sure you are the best at what you do. You do the work; it's not something you hand off to someone.

"I'm not my dad. I'm not in the limelight like my dad was, and that's absolutely perfect," Rockefeller adds. "I've been blessed with a name that gives me easier access to people and opportunities other people don't have. My dad said, 'When you're blessed and you have a lot, you should consider giving back. It's not a burden or an obligation. Help your fellow man.'"

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