Rockefeller and school officials with new bus he provided.

In 1956, Winthrop Rockefeller made his local school district in Morrilton an offer that it surely could not refuse: unlimited access to his considerable inherited Standard Oil fortune to fund a model school program that would be the envy of the state, the South and the nation. Rockefeller had moved to Arkansas in 1953, building Winrock Farms atop Petit Jean Mountain, 15 miles west of Morrilton. He was determined to use his wealth to benefit his newly adopted state. Public education seemed the best place to start, following his previous role as a member of the board of trustees of New York’s Public Education Association. Rockefeller created the Rockwin Fund — today the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation — specifically to finance a Morrilton model school program. The fund subsequently became the vehicle for his other philanthropic endeavors in the state.

The first question Morrilton residents asked Rockefeller’s envoy, George M. Reynolds, the president of Winrock Enterprises Inc., who pitched the model schools program to them, was this: “Does that mean we have to integrate?” Morrilton schools were still segregated two years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling. Reynolds conceded that “no one in his right mind would set out to build two separate school systems,” when there was a federal mandate to desegregate. Yet eventually, to get the locals to take his money, Rockefeller agreed to fund the model schools program on a separate but equal basis, preserving segregation while insisting that funds were spent proportionately between improving both white and black schools. Morrilton schools finally desegregated in 1965. The following year attorney John Walker assisted the Arkansas Teachers’ Association and black teachers who had been dismissed from their jobs as a result of desegregation in successfully suing the school district. It was the first case of its kind in the state.

The second question was about taxes. Rockefeller offered to fund his model schools program for five years on condition that local residents raise taxes to sustain it afterward. Following a much-heated debate, the community agreed. Over the next five years, Rockefeller spent $750,000 of his own money (inflation-adjusted, the equivalent of around $7 million today) on the construction of a new, state-of-the-art white Reynolds Elementary School, named after Arkansas educator John Hugh Reynolds, a former president of the University of Arkansas and Hendrix College, and the father of George M. Reynolds. Hundreds of thousands of dollars more were spent on school enrichment programs during the same period.

The progress made through the investments fast became evident. By 1960, class sizes were reduced from 36 to 30 students. A much broader curriculum was introduced. Teaching capabilities in the district were strengthened through professional development. Teachers’ salaries were raised by 10 percent. Furniture, equipment and school physical plants were all enhanced. Health, physical education and dental monitoring were all improved. A school nurse was hired, local doctors cooperated in physical examinations, and local dentists started school dental examinations, which in turn led to the fluoridation of the local water supply and fewer cavities. A school psychologist was hired to work with students on emotional and other issues, increasing the retention rate. Fifty-eight percent more of Morrilton’s high school graduates were going to college in 1960 than four years earlier.

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Student test scores rose significantly as a result of better-funded and better-equipped schools. In 1956, only one out of 10 grades tested at the national average. In 1957, five out of 10 grades tested at the national average. In 1958, eight out of 10 grades tested at or above the national average. School officials attributed the success “to the extraordinary efforts of teachers and staff, to the close cooperation of parents and patrons and to the desire of the pupils themselves.”

The benefits of investment in local schools were plain for everyone to see. However, when the vote to raise taxes to continue the model schools program was held in December 1960, it was defeated by a 2-to-1 margin. Dr. Verrell O. McNabb, a Morrilton optometrist, wrote a letter to Rockefeller with apologetic words about his fellow citizens that echoed down the ages: “This morning, I am ashamed. We Morrilton people, in the decisive vote yesterday, have indicated that we don’t put a very high value on the educational level of our young people. It seems that we prefer ultra-conservatism to progress.” McNabb added, “Perhaps it is significant that such a large percentage of our community’s population is on the Welfare roll, that our per capita income is so low, and that ours, relatively, is a state of retarded progress. We just simply refuse to be lifted up.”

The defeat was a rude awakening for Rockefeller about the uphill task he faced in transforming Arkansas. What he did, and perhaps more importantly, what he did not do next, reveal much about Rockefeller’s fundamental commitment to public education and democracy. Rockefeller did not seek to use his considerable wealth to charterize or to privatize Morrilton’s public schools to force his vision for a better education upon the community. Rather, despite the setback, Rockefeller kept faith in the people to make their own decisions about public education, and he remained steadfast in his conviction that through the democratic process they could ultimately be persuaded to make the right choices about their children’s education while retaining local control over their own schools.

The defeat of his model school program in Morrilton was one of the things that spurred Rockefeller to run for political office. He ran for governor as a Republican in 1964 and lost to Democratic incumbent Orval E. Faubus — the man who famously mobilized the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. Rockefeller ran again in 1966, this time beating one of the state’s leading segregationists, James D. Johnson. Rockefeller became the first Republican governor of Arkansas in 94 years. He tried to pass progressive social programs, including higher funding for education based on tax increases, through a legislature that was packed with conservative Democrats. He lost at almost every turn. He was re-elected in 1968 and tried again. Still, the legislature refused to budge.

Rockefeller was defeated in the 1970 gubernatorial election by Dale Bumpers, at the time a relatively unknown Democrat. Bumpers passed a virtually identical program to Rockefeller’s through the legislature. The first in a line of so-called “New Democrats,” Bumpers realigned Arkansas Democratic Party politics with that of the national Democratic Party’s progressive agenda. David Pryor, who did the same, followed him in office. Bill Clinton, who later married progressive state politics with progressive national politics to win the White House for the Democrats in 1992 and 1996, followed Pryor.

The New Democrat governors ushered in a golden era of progressive politics that was coupled with a period of relative prosperity for Arkansas, dragging the state kicking and screaming belatedly into the 20th century. Nevertheless, it was Rockefeller who made the arguments and paved the way for change. His legacy remains a glowing testimony to the impact that great wealth along with an unrelenting civic-mindedness, an unshakeable belief in the power of public education and an unswerving commitment to the democratic process, can have on improving the lives of all Arkansans.

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John A. Kirk is the George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He is writing a biography of Winthrop Rockefeller.