The 1966 gubernatorial election was a defining moment in 20th century Arkansas politics. Not before nor since has the electorate been offered such a polar choice of candidates. New York-born millionaire Winthrop Rockefeller's victory over homegrown Crossett lawyer James D. Johnson made Rockefeller the first Republican governor of Arkansas in 94 years. Rockefeller's victory, and his 1968 re-election, produced a thoroughgoing reform of the Arkansas Democratic Party and introduced a two-party political system to the state for the first time in living memory.
Rockefeller was an unlikely champion in Arkansas politics. Born May 1, 1912, he was the grandson of John D. Rockefeller, one of the founders of Standard Oil Company, and the son of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the sole male heir to the family fortune. Rockefeller grew up in New York with his older sister and as the second youngest of five brothers. After attending schools in New York and Connecticut, Rockefeller enrolled at Yale University. A restless spirit, he never settled at Yale, and he left in his junior year to go work as a roustabout in the Texas oil fields.
Rockefeller subsequently held several jobs with family connections from Chase Manhattan Bank to Socony-Vacuum Oil Company before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1941. He saw active service during World War II in the Pacific at Guam, Leyte and Okinawa. On April 2, 1945, Rockefeller's ship the Henrico was attacked by a kamikaze pilot, killing 75 and wounding 150 men. Rockefeller suffered flash burns and was hospitalized for six weeks. By the end of the war, he had risen from the rank of private to lieutenant colonel.
After returning from the war to New York, Rockefeller was one of the most eligible bachelors in the United States. However, a short-lived and ill-fated marriage to Barbara "Bobo" Sears resulted in an acrimonious divorce, though the union did produce a son, Winthrop Paul. Looking to escape the glare of publicity, in 1953 Rockefeller took the advice of former army buddy, Arkansan Frank Newell, and moved to the state. He bought a 927-acre tract on top of Petit Jean Mountain and immediately began building Winrock Farms, stocking its fields with prime Santa Gertrudis cattle. In 1956, Rockefeller married Jeanette Edris from Seattle and gained two stepchildren, Ann and Bruce Bartley.
Gov. Orval Faubus quickly sought to enlist Rockefeller's name and business contacts to serve the state. In 1955, Faubus appointed Rockefeller chair of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission (AIDC), and Rockefeller set about luring new industry to the state with great success. Then came the 1957 Little Rock school crisis. Rockefeller pleaded with Faubus not to embark on a reckless course of calling out the National Guard to prevent school desegregation. Faubus did not listen. No new companies located to Little Rock for the next three years because of the racial crisis that enveloped the city.
Rockefeller was convinced that to advance Arkansas economically he would have to steer the state in a new direction politically. In 1964, he resigned as AIDC chair and ran against Faubus for governor. He lost, and Faubus won a record-breaking sixth term in office. Undeterred, Rockefeller immediately began preparing for his next campaign. His chances of success were boosted when Faubus declared that he would not seek re-election in 1966.
The Democratic nominee in 1966 was James D. Johnson. Johnson's background, career, and political outlook could not have been more different than Rockefeller's. From the small lumber town of Crossett, Johnson was the son of an independent grocer. Educated in local schools, he attended Cumberland University Law School in Birmingham, Ala., where he entered politics at the age of 23, working for the National States' Rights Party 1948 presidential candidate Strom Thurmond.
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