Sailing with Rockefeller

Joy and James Mathias came from Arkansas with their friends from Missouri to take their first sailboat cruise, on the York River near Williamsburg. They were vitally interested in Colonial Williamsburg, which was restored and developed in the 1930s by John D. Rockefeller Jr. Sailing the inland waters on a beautiful afternoon was like sailing with Rockefeller, although I can’t imagine him doing it.

The couple was familiar with his youngest son, Winthrop, who served two terms as governor of Arkansas. I explained that Williamsburg played a key role in his personal growth. Winthrop was a party guy and eventual alcoholic traced to abuse suffered in his boyhood by his older brothers, who would lock him in closets and otherwise make his life miserable.

In the early 1950s Mr. Rockefeller had a falling out with his oldest son John III over whether to put artifacts on a train and send it around America to promote the outdoor museum. John was ousted as chairman of the board and Winthrop became the compromise choice.

He grew into his responsibilities and by all accounts distinguished himself for leading the foundation. He also bought Carter’s Grove Plantation, outside of town, and donated it to Colonial Williamsburg.

In 1968, by then-Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller was hosting the Southern Governors Association at Williamsburg. It was a huge gala and included a parade of white Cadillacs to Carter’s Grove for a state dinner. Georgia Gov. George Wallace decided to leave the cocktail reception early and drive to Carter’s Grove on his own.

That would have presented a security problem because the Virginia State Police were instructed not to let anyone in at the plantation gates except the parade of governors. Rockefeller and his CW president jumped in a Mercedes and high-tailed out of town to intercept Wallace. When they got to the gate, the driver asked if Gov. Wallace had shown up.

“No,” deadpanned the state trooper. “Who are you?” Despite their best efforts to explain that they were there to greet Wallace and let him in, the trooper was adamant. Finally, Rockefeller leaned forward from the back seat and put his hand on the driver’s shoulder.

He said in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “Son, tell him we own this fucking place.” That worked, and a diplomatic gaffe was avoided.

Sailing with Rockefeller

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