When The Observer was 17 years old or so, she won a National Merit Scholarship funded by, as she remembers, the Rockefellers. She doesn’t know whether it was through the foundation (this was the early ’70s) or through some other extension of their philanthropy. All she knows is that she and about a score of other recipients were invited, with their parents, to former Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller’s home atop Petit Jean Mountain for a dinner.
On that hot summer night, she met Rockefeller’s handsome son, Winthrop Paul, then in his mid-20s. She might say he made polite chit-chat with her except that saying so would have been doing him a disservice. The chit-chat was polite but it was also kind and it came from someone who was obviously extremely shy. She could tell because she was extremely shy herself. They could not have come from more dissimilar backgrounds, but, even in her extreme youth and naivete, she could tell he was trying to put her at ease. And though he did talk with an accent that she had never heard and that sounded slightly affected to her extremely young and naive ears, there was nothing affected about him. The Observer later discovered that many people from his background spoke with similar accents.
The Observer did not develop a crush on this young man, though one might have expected her to. After all, he was handsome, extraordinarily rich, the son of a former governor and about as connected as one could be. The Observer, while probably pretty in her homespun way, was the opposite of rich and connected. But she remained deeply grateful to him and his family, for two reasons: The scholarship she received allowed her to attend college; Winthrop Paul Rockefeller demonstrated to her the aristocracy of character.
The Observer and Winthrop Paul Rockefeller met once again, a little less than 10 years later at the wedding in St. Louis of mutual friends. The Observer and her husband talked to Winthrop Paul Rockefeller and his young wife, Lisenne, at the wedding for a bit, and Win Paul Rockefeller offered to fly them back home to Little Rock on his plane. As in the previous encounter, he was as totally unaffected as his offer was generous. Of course, The Observer and her husband had driven to St. Louis in their Honda Civic, and while the offer was tempting, it was impractical.
Many other people will have memories of Lt. Gov. Rockefeller that are much more profound and intimate. And all this Observer can do is to let those who loved this man know that he was capable of changing a life in the span of minutes not because he was rich or came from a storied family, but because he defied the, no doubt, often unfair assumptions made about rich people from storied families. He was genuine and kind and gentle to a young girl from Scott County, Arkansas, who hadn’t seen those qualities in much of anyone during her, at the time, brief life.
She remains deeply grateful and hopes only that she can occasionally demonstrate the aristocracy of character that Winthrop Paul Rockefeller demonstrated to her so long ago, but so memorably. It is just one legacy that he has left behind, but The Observer thinks that, as legacies go, it’s quite a fine one. It’s also one that she will do her best to perpetuate.
The Observer was half-listening to a public radio talk show on a recent afternoon, and as sometimes happens, one particular word kept grabbing our attention. “Opportunity.” The radio pontificators seemed to use it in about every other sentence — in this particular context, to argue that the recent carnage in the Middle East could actually be an opportunity to improve the situation.
The word gave The Observer a flashback: Seventh-grade math, Mr. Holloway, a corner classroom on the back side of Forest Heights Junior High. Mr. Holloway was legendary, one of those teachers we’d heard about from older siblings who’d survived his class. In Mr. Holloway’s class, he told us on the first day of school, there were no tests. We can imagine the rows of bugged-out eyes that must have stared back at him during the pause that followed. No, he said, no tests. In this class, we have Opportunities. To pass or fail, he meant; to shine or be ashamed. And that’s what he called them all year. There’ll be an Opportunity next Friday, he’d say, over … whatever you learn in seventh-grade math.
We weren’t fooled back then, and though we’d like to, we can’t quite see ourselves clear to hope with the radio commentator today, either.