Get Connected
  • facebook
  • twitter

Rockefeller looks back on years that drove his political career

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - If the Cleveland Browns had not traded halfback Bobby Mitchell to the Washington Redskins ahead of the 1962 season, Jay Rockefeller might not have become one of West Virginia's two U.S. senators.

Rockefeller shared season tickets with Charlie Peters, a Charleston native. The two had met in the Peace Corps. In 1964 Peters would convince Rockefeller to visit West Virginia, a trip that would write a half-century of state history.

The two men talked in recent telephone interviews about how Rockefeller, a New Yorker by birth, ended up in West Virginia. Rockefeller, a five-term senator and former governor, is preparing to leave office after the 2014 election.

"We came together because we were both football fans, not a highly intellectual common ground, but that's how we became friends, talking about sports," said Peters, the eventual founder and longtime editor of The Washington Monthly.

"But as I got to know him, I got to say, 'This guy has the potential to do some good in life.' "

With Mitchell, the team's first black star and a future hall of famer, Peters said the Redskins suddenly went from "awful" to "interesting."

He and Rockefeller started going to games together.

Peters remembers tickets were cheap back then - $36 for the season.

They were cheap all right, said his seatmate.

"Unfortunately, he bought the tickets," said Rockefeller, the great-grandson of one of the wealthiest men in history, "which meant we were seated somewhere around the 10-yard line."

A few occurrences in the early 1960s propelled Rockefeller to West Virginia.

John Kennedy campaigned heavily in the state in 1960 and drew national attention to the state and its problems.

Michael Herrington published "The Other America," a study of poverty. Peters said Herrington's book was a cultural event that challenged the assumption that poverty wasn't a problem in post-war America.

But, perhaps most importantly, Rockefeller met West Virginians. First Rockefeller knew Peters. Through Peters, Rockefeller met the longtime publisher of The Charleston Gazette, Ned Chilton.

Rockefeller, then in his mid-20s, was already looking for something beyond a chair behind a desk in Rockefeller Center, the New York City home of the family's empire. He already had been to the rice fields of Japan after restless years at Harvard. Now, Peters was going to send him to the coalfields of West Virginia.

There were perhaps signs he would be different.

A serious youth

While the Rockefellers sunned in the south of France, a 17-year-old Jay read "The Grapes of Wrath."

Rockefeller, now 75, remembers the classic about migrant farmers during the Great Depression. He saw John Steinbeck's characters as "people whose lives were completely discombobulated and ruined, etc. - because of something they couldn't help."

That hardly described Rockefeller.

He graduated from the prestigious Exeter prep school in New Hampshire and started at Harvard at 16.

At Harvard, he said he was a sought-after recruit for the university's social clubs, which were elite circles within the elite circle of Harvard.

"Social clubs did nothing. In fact, they had a policy they didn't even look at public school students, they only looked at preppies - which is pretty disgusting when you think about it - and 'diversity' was a word nobody seemed to be able to spell," Rockefeller said.

He became a club president. They gave him an office.

What was the office for? He said he wasn't sure.

There was a rope he could pull and order a drink. But Rockefeller isn't a drinker.

"It was all the worst things you could think about life at a prestigious American university in the middle of the last century," he said.

He needed out.

"I was somnolent," Rockefeller said. "I need to be triggered, I need to be engaged, I need to have a mission."

He told Harvard's famed Japan expert Edwin Reischauer that he was treading water and wanted to go to Japan.

So, in 1957 Rockefeller left Harvard - "and nobody did that in those days," he said - for International Christian University in Tokyo. He remembers being just about the only American in the island nation who wasn't in the military or the diplomatic corps. And at over 6 feet 6 inches tall, he would have stood out anyway.

He decided to learn Japanese and spent three years learning from a "brutally tough" Japanese instructor. He lived in a traditional house made of wood and paper and woke up at 4:30 a.m. on 20-degree winter mornings to study. He came back to America only twice: Once to say good-bye to his grandfather with cancer and then to attend the funeral.

Eventually, he returned to Harvard. This time, he avoided the dorms, took classes he should have taken the first time around and finished up.

From his apartment that senior year, Rockefeller watched the 1960 presidential primary on television and saw Kennedy campaigning in West Virginia. He saw a challenging topography but good people.

"It was intriguing without any deep thoughts on my part," he said. "I mean, I wasn't saying, 'Gee, I want to go to West Virginia.' "

Seed was planted

The images from the primary went into his memory bank, even if he didn't realize it.

He served stints in the Peace Corps and the State Department but found the federal agency "sclerotic," or insular, and wanted something else.

Then the idea of West Virginia popped up.

Peters told Rockefeller, a student of China and Japan, that he didn't know anything about his own country.

Rockefeller told Peters he had been a camp counselor.

"He said, 'Well that's worth minus 30 points,' " Rockefeller recalled.

Peters said Rockefeller already was eager to get involved in America's domestic problems, particularly poverty.

"We had become friends and I was from West Virginia, so what did I suggest?" Peters said. "'Boy, if you're concerned about poverty, the place to go is West Virginia.' "

Peters said Rockefeller met Ned and Betty Chilton, the newspaper publishers, at the christening of Peters' only child. The Chiltons invited Rockefeller to come to West Virginia and stay with them.

Around the same time, Rockefeller also went to visit President Kennedy's brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to ask about Action for Appalachian Youth, an anti-poverty program.

Rockefeller said he knew all the Kennedys well but liked Bobby best.

"Because he struck me," Rockefeller said. "He had a soul, and there are a lot of photographs of him in West Virginia later when he ran for president sitting on a slag heap, looking mournful, looking off into the distance, thinking, 'Why does this condition exist, what can I do?' "

Rockefeller decided to go for it and drove to West Virginia in 1964.

In Charleston, the Chiltons put him up for "a number of months," Rockefeller said. Sometimes he would eat breakfast at the home of Peters' mother, and the senator still raves about her oyster stew.

His anti-poverty work didn't go well at first.

He said he got stuck in an office building in Charleston.

"They had absolutely no idea what to do with me, hated the fact I was there and gave me absolutely nothing to do," he said.

So, he decided to find something to do.  He started going to weekly meetings of social workers. He decided to be a social worker. But for whom?

Rockefeller met Gazette newspaperman Don Marsh, who he called a "creature of Cabin Creek," the eastern Kanawha County mining community. The two wandered around and found their way to Emmons, an unincorporated community that straddles the Kanawha and Boone county line.

"It was perfect, so I started my long trek to try to make myself credible and serious in Emmons," Rockefeller said.

For the first six months, nobody let Rockefeller into their house.

Rockefeller said he understood why he wasn't accepted at first in Emmons. A similar reticence covered the whole state and thwarted his first and unsuccessful run for governor years later.

"They, like West Virginia, didn't accept me, until after I lost to Arch Moore and got up not sulking but smiling," Rockefeller said, segueing from his early setbacks in Emmons to the loss he suffered in the 1972 governor's race.

"I think I knew in my gut I had to lose a big election - not secretary of state or House of Delegates."

After that loss, Rockefeller - who had already been a state legislator and secretary of state - stayed in West Virginia and took the position of president of West Virginia Wesleyan College. He pulled off a political comeback in 1976 and served two terms as governor before joining the U.S. Senate.

In Emmons in the mid-1960s, Rockefeller said he eventually got the ear of the community and decided West Virginia was home.

Indelible experience

Rockefeller's anecdotes about Emmons can sound like a comedy of errors were they not somewhat tragic.

He started a baseball team. It lost every game.

But he and others involved a guy, a near hermit who lived in a block building all by himself, to coach the team. Rockefeller said that gave happiness to the last 10 years of the man's life.

He sent an 18-year-old with "all the right instincts" to interview for a job at Union Carbide.

The teen had never been to Charleston and never had dealt with red or green lights or an elevator.

He made it to his meeting on the third floor of an office building but was seated facing the sun. Rockefeller said he went to draw the blinds but they were Venetian blinds, which he never had encountered. In desperation, he started tugging on the bottom slats and ended up so humiliated he couldn't give his name.

"He was just done in," Rockefeller said.

Rockefeller tried to extend running water to Emmons. He did - in summer 2000. 

"It took 30 years," he said. "I was governor, I was senator and all this stuff. Didn't make any difference. It took 30 years."

But the experiences informed his policy and makes Rockefeller, in his own words, easy to predict on some issues.

Rockefeller said what he does in Washington reflects problems he found in Emmons.

For instance, he said his fight to make sure insurance companies provide dental care harkens to a time when he drove kids in his Jeep from Emmons to a free dental clinic in South Charleston.

He stays in touch with people he met in Emmons. Some were among the rare few who received calls in advance of his announcement he would not run again for Senate.

One of them - an "absolutely quip smart school teacher" who made unbelievable pies, Rockefeller said - is now 85 years old and the sole person taking care of her husband with Alzheimer's. 

Rockefeller said he's tried to improve long-term care in the country. Once he snuck a provision into a bill while the late Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter "was taking a bathroom break."

Staying put

"As I look at my life, it's not that complicated," Rockefeller said.

He said he wanted to be "pushing the rock up the hill - can't take your hand off either side, unless you and the rock go into the canyon."

But suspicion remains that Rockefeller came to West Virginia with a plan to run for office. Some of his detractors still reflexively call him a "carpetbagger."

After all, his uncle Nelson was a New York governor and his uncle Winthrop was an Arkansas governor.

But both Rockefeller and Peters say Rockefeller did not plan to ascend the political ladder in West Virginia, at least not when he first came.

"Oh my God, no, there was none of that," Peters said.

Peter said he sensed Rockefeller would make a career in West Virginia.

"I had a sense that he had the makings of an outstanding person," Peter said.

But it was not, he said, something the pair talked about at first.

Peter said Rockefeller's "desire to run for office in West Virginia, that hadn't happened yet to him - in the back of mind it was there, but not something he talked about."

Rockefeller said he clung to the idea of becoming an ambassador for a while after arrival.

(He dreamed of eventually serving as ambassador to China - an interesting choice since the United States didn't actually have diplomatic relations with the country until President Richard Nixon formally broke the silence in 1972).

"I didn't necessarily plan on staying in West Virginia," Rockefeller said. "I mean, my going to West Virginia was not a commitment to West Virginia; it was a commitment to being an Action for Appalachian Youth Worker/VISTA later on."

But stay he did. Throughout his career, he cited what he found in Emmons as the foundation of his public policy and, at times, an experience that touched his soul.

"I came to Emmons - as Sharon broke the news to you - as an untrained social worker, a VISTA volunteer, back in 1964," Rockefeller said dryly during his retirement announcement after his wife had spoken. VISTA is a national volunteer program.

"Frankly, I was in search of a clear and powerful purpose," he said during the speech at the Culture Center in Charleston.

"It was that simple. I wanted something that was so compelling and so obsessive that it would just fill me out completely. I didn't necessarily want it to be complicated, but I wanted it to be hard."

As he prepares to leave the Senate, he said he does second-guess his decision not to seek reelection.

Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said he came out of a recent meeting of the panel energized by "wonderful" public policy discussions.

"The effect of it was, I don't want to leave, and I'm totally at peace with my decision, but it's harder than I thought, even though I've still got two years in front of me, it's still so interesting up here," he said.

"You always second-guess, 'Well, maybe I could have done another term,' " Rockefeller said. "But, no, it was exactly the right time."



User Comments