Get to Know John A. Kirk, Six Bridges Featured Author

Tell us briefly about your book.
Why did Winthrop Rockefeller, scion of one of the most powerful families in American history, leave New York for an Arkansas mountaintop in the 1950s? My book seeks to fully unravel that mystery for the first time. It traces Rockefeller’s life from childhood to adolescence, from Yale scholar to Texas oilfield roustabout, from New York businessman to combat soldier in the Pacific during World War II, and from a high society wedding to an infamous divorce.

What motivated you to write it?
I have written about Arkansas history for many years. Rockefeller’s story always fascinated me. He is an intriguing figure, a man seemingly out of time and place: a Rockefeller in Arkansas; the state’s first Republican governor in ninety-four years, in one of America’s most solidly Democratic strongholds; and a Republican who has been hailed one of the state’s most liberal governors at a time when the Republican Party was making its inexorable move from moderation to more radical right-wing politics.

Your book is about what brought a mogul from New York to Arkansas, and you’re from the UK; what brought you to Arkansas?
My work on the American civil rights movement. I always tell my students that people from outside the state know three things about Arkansas: the 1957 Little Rock School Crisis, President Bill Clinton, and Walmart. It was the school crisis that brought me here. I have written extensively about the civil rights movement in both the state and the nation. I was born and raised in England, attended school there, and worked at the University of Wales and the University of London for sixteen years. In 2010, I successfully applied for the position of History Department chair at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. I have been here since.

Do you have any family ties to Arkansas?
I met my wife, Charlene, during a research trip to the state. It was in 1997, and she had just graduated from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. I was based there on sabbatical while turning my PhD thesis into my first book, Redefining the Color Line: Black Activism in Little Rock Arkansas, 1940-1970, which was published by the University Press of Florida in 2002. We dated transatlantically for a couple of years before getting married in 1999. Our daughter, Sadie, was born in 2005.

What resources did you use to research this book?
The book began when I was working at the University of London. In 2009, I successfully applied to become the inaugural scholar-in-residence at the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York. The archives sit on the grounds of the Rockefeller family estate in Westchester County. I used the Winthrop Rockefeller Collection on microfilm and other Rockefeller family papers to get my research started. The following year, I moved to Little Rock, where the original Winthrop Rockefeller Collection is held. The collection is massive, and being in the same city to get the research done was a great help.

What kinds of readers do you think will appreciate your discussion the most?
I think there is still a huge amount of affection for and interest in Winthrop Rockefeller in the state. There are plenty of Arkansas history buffs, the Rockefeller name still has a great deal of cachet, and the history of Republicanism in southern and national politics is also a hot topic. I think anyone interested in those themes would enjoy the discussion.

What was your favorite part of writing this book?
Visiting the places that shaped Winthrop Rockefeller’s life. I enjoyed getting to know New York, both the city and the state, on numerous research trips there. The Rockefeller family estate is a beautiful place to visit. So too is Petit Jean Mountain in Arkansas, where Winthrop built Winrock Farms and his new family home.

What are you reading now?
Two books about Arkansas that are also being featured at the festival: Colin Edward Woodward’s Country Boy: The Roots of Johnny Cash, and Ronnie Williams’s Markham Street: The Haunting Truth Behind the Murder of My Brother, Marvin Leonard Williams.

What does it mean to you to be promoting your book as a local author? Are you excited to see any other authors at the Fest? Who/why?
I get a kick out of being a British author living in Little Rock writing about an Arkansas icon. In a similar vein, I’m looking forward to seeing James Gavin talk about his book George Michael: A Life as an American author visiting Little Rock writing about a British icon. I think it will make me feel right at home. As will the accompanying George Michael Reborn tribute concert, which I am also looking forward to!

Your biography of Winthrop Rockefeller ends in the mid-1950s when he moved to Arkansas. Does that mean there will be a sequel about what happened next?
Very possibly…

Sponsored by Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.