Leader Blues

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

FROM THE PUBLISHER >> Rockefeller gentleman billionaire


I was late for lunch with Win Rockefeller because of a mixup; I wasn’t sure we were supposed to get together that day, but then his office called, wondering what happened.

“I’ll be right over,” I said, about 45 minutes late.

Rockefeller was sitting at a table outside the restaurant, reading a paper and having a soda.
I apologized to the lieutenant governor, but he wasn’t upset.

We ordered a sandwich and talked politics. I knew he was plan ning to run for governor, and I kept telling him I felt terrible about being late. “Forget it,” he said. “Don’t mention it.”

He soon announced for governor, but then developed what turned out to be a fatal blood disorder and dropped out of the race last summer.

A bone-marrow transplant that would have kept him alive failed twice, and last week, he declared himself unable to perform the duties of lieutenant governor. He died Sunday morning at the age of 57. His father, former governor Winthrop Rockefeller, who had cancer, lived just three years longer than his son.

Win was the most unpretentious billionaire I know. I think he wore his suits off the rack, when he could have had the most expensive tailors fly in from London or Hong Kong.

Unlike a lot of people who inherit their wealth and who think that makes them superior human beings, he didn’t think he was special just because he was a Rockefeller.

I once ran into him in a restaurant one winter evening, where he was waiting for a takeout order to bring home to his family and watch news channels. “We’re news junkies,” he said, walking out to his car with his bags of food.

We always got along well: We were almost exactly the same age, born a couple of weeks apart: The billionaire and the immigrant, but he himself was part of the immigrant experience.

His maternal grandparents came from Lithuania, and his mother was a first-generation American. She married a Rockefeller, no less.

That’s America in a nutshell: There’s no rigid class system here — the most humble can strive upwards and mingle with those who have found the American dream and then join their ranks.

Win was a generous philanthropist and patron of the arts, although he’d drive a couple of miles if he could save $5 on a tank of gas.

Perhaps because of his eastern European heritage, Win was a little tight with his money. I grew up with people like that, much poorer than the Rockefellers, of course, but immigrants from that part of the world hold on to their money because they always expect the worst. They think the next depression is around the corner, and who can blame them?

He was raised on New York’s Upper East Side, but he spent a lot of time on his mother’s parents’ farm in Indiana, where they still spoke Lithuanian. (Besides his lisp, I thought Win had a slight Lithuanian accent.)

The Rockefellers donated the land that was once a Dutch settlement in New York’s Kips Bay for the United Nations (Gen. Kip Self, commander at Little Rock Air Force Base, almost certainly had relatives there).

Rockefeller was born into a Republican Party of the wealthy and small business owners. Al-though his critics called him a country-club Republican, he saw the party embrace working people — Southern Baptists and northern ethnics, police officers and firefighters, truck drivers and construction workers. He had a self-deprecating sense of humor. He called himself a Rockefeller Republican, a term reviled in the modern GOP. Gerald Ford had to drop Win’s uncle Nelson as a vice- presidential candidate when conservatives recoiled at the idea of a Rockefeller, a limousine Republican if there ever was one, running on a presidential ticket.

Win Rockefeller wasn’t anything like that. He mingled with the ordinary people of Arkansas and, like his father, might have become their governor had he lived.

A plaque outside his home on Petit Jean quotes Micah 6:8: ‘And what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.’

That was Win Rockefeller — a good friend, and we’ll miss him and those late lunches.