A different kind of sadness

Posted: Jul 26, 2006 12:00 AM
A different kind of sadness

When the news came on a sunny Sunday morning, a different kind of grief set in. Arkansas was mourning not just what we had had in Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, who preferred to be called just Win, but what might have been.

Who knows what other good things this still young 57-year-old lieutenant governor might have accomplished? Just as his father had before him. When the first Win Rockefeller succeeded Orval Faubus as governor, he made Arkansas the epitome of the New South of his generation.

Like father, like son. Whenever this Win Rockefeller walked into a room, hope was at his side. And civility. And vision. When the press would ask him the kind of pointed question we're particularly proud of -- specific, direct, not just timely but immediate -- Win would pause before answering, just as his father used to. For he seemed to have inherited his father's diffident manner.

Or maybe it was just any Rockefeller's acquired habit of trying to put people at ease, for people were always very much aware, at least at first, that he was a Rockefeller.

Or maybe the hesitancy came from his mother Bobo's side of the family, since his first language, learned in childhood in the bosom of his mother's people, was Lithuanian.

Or perhaps the diffidence came from those years spent in Swiss boarding schools and later, not very happily, at Oxford.

Whatever the reason he was slow of speech, it lasted only a moment, and then Win would take the subject and begin to soar, perhaps leaning back and crossing his legs -- that's when you'd notice the cowboy boots he always wore -- and proceed to discuss the matter on a whole higher plane.

Asked about one tax, he would talk of redoing the state's whole tax structure to make it fairer and yet more productive. Asked about what motivated him, he would go to the core of what now has become just a political slogan -- Family Values! -- but for him was the basis of his life.

Soon you would realize that, however sophisticated the words he used, or however tangled his syntax, this Rockefeller was really a familiar type in these parts: the good ol' boy with the best will in the world.

No man was ever more at home in the state he loved, or more devoted to its loveliness. As it says on the license plates, this is The Natural State, and he proposed to keep it that way.

However many or varied the pressures he would have to face, for he'd been a public figure from birth, there was always an assuring calm about the man. Whether he was fielding one more plodding question, or playing the spoons after dinner -- a frontier tradition -- he remained the same Win.

Some of us thought of him as a frustrated sheriff's deputy, A man's man, he loved that kind of work. Or as a grown-up Boy Scout because he also loved that organization -- and way of life. Mainly, most of us thought of him as one of the state's great political hopes.

Then the news came Sunday morning. Not that it was unexpected. But even when you think you're prepared for the inevitable, you're not. That realization is among the first that hits after the inevitable has arrived.

Strange thing about the Angel of Death. First you only imagine you've seen him. Surely it's a trick of the light, you tell yourself, something you've dreamed up out of nothing, really. There is a shortness of breath, an unaccustomed fatigue at the end of the day. All that's needed is a vacation, you think, and maybe that is indeed all that's needed.

But then the dark figure on the horizon begins to make a home in your consciousness -- like a guest who's moved in somewhere in the house. Just where you're not sure, but you can feel his presence.

The exhausting medical treatments begin, and so do the reassurances. When it was announced that Win would need to take some time off to treat a rare blood malady that might lead to cancer, it was said he might be back in time to re-enter this year's race for governor. That was a year ago. But one treatment after another failed to take.

In the end, the guest who had moved into some small dark corner had taken over the whole house and, even more strangely, he had become a welcome guest, for the Angel of Death can be merciful, too, putting an end to the hopeless struggling, the barely controlled pain. Once he returned home, at least Win didn't linger.

At such a time, thinking of what we in Arkansas have lost, it's a comfort to think of the life of accomplishment Win Rockefeller led here, full of generous impulses followed through, and of the dawns and sunsets he must have seen from his farm (Winrock) high atop his beloved Petit Jean Mountain.

Somewhere you can still hear the ringing music of the spoons. It resounds, like one good deed echoing another.