Natalie Rockefeller was not a professional dancer. But she and others took to the stage at the 2015 Dancing With Our Stars Gala in a ballroom in Little Rock to raise money for the treatment of neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition usually diagnosed in children.
Rockefeller had heard about Myleigh, a little girl from South Arkansas who had it, and she wanted to meet her.
Up walked a 5-year-old in a blue dress. She reminded Rockefeller of a little princess.
You couldn’t see the tumors growing under the child’s skin. Myleigh hugged Rockefeller and thanked her for her efforts on behalf of The Children’s Tumor Foundation. The child’s gratitude, Rockefeller thought, was genuine.
“She was just beautiful. Even now, her sincerity brings tears to my eyes,” Rockefeller says. “I just couldn’t imagine what her parents were going through. I was a new mom myself. I kept seeing this little girl’s face and thinking, ‘What would I do if I was her mom?'”
Myleigh would, for Rockefeller, be the face of what has become a years-long effort to get a place in Arkansas where people with neurofibromatosis can be treated by a specialist after they reach adulthood. No one should leave the state.
Neurofibromatosis, or NF, is a rare genetic condition in which a person develops benign tumors beneath the surface of the skin. The tumors attach to nerve tissue and are painful to the touch. It is useless and there is no cure.
The Children’s Tumor Foundation is one of two charities Rockefeller sits on its board of directors. The other is the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, a research and treatment center at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences that has been a major beneficiary of the Rockefeller family’s philanthropy and is named after her late father-in-law, who died of cancer. at age 57.
Rockefeller, 40, is married to Winthrop Paul “Win” Rockefeller Jr. — great-great-grandson of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller; grandson of former Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller; and son and namesake of the late Lt. gov. Win Rockefeller.
Like the four generations of Rockefellers that preceded it, she and her husband want to use their family’s resources to foster a culture of philanthropy. They are considered to be at the forefront of the next generation of Little Rock philanthropists who support good works that produce tangible results.
The current effort comes amid a coronavirus pandemic that has turned traditional fundraising upside down and forced smaller nonprofits like many of the Rockefellers to find new ways to stay relevant.
“We have to be creative or these nonprofits won’t work,” Rockefeller says, calling it “thinking outside the box.”
“Sometimes I have crazy ideas that don’t work, but sometimes I come up with something that does,” she says. “There is a way to be involved and still be at home. We did it for a year and a half and it worked.”
Natalie Hunter grew up in New Madrid, Mo., located along the Mississippi River in Missouri’s Bootheel. Her mother is director of the port company there. Her father farms thousands of hectares, mainly maize and cotton, and is a partner in a cooperative.
The Rockefeller name embodies wealth, privilege and an ancient political dynasty – including a vice president and multiple senators and governors, almost all Republicans and living in the East.
Natalie Rockefeller comes from a family that has been involved in Democratic Party politics in Missouri for four generations. Her great-grandmother participated before women could vote. Her grandfather was a prosecutor for more than 20 years. An uncle chairs his county Democratic Party. Natalie was a 2004 Democratic National Committee delegate when she was 23.
She wanted to study with friends at Mississippi State University, but with two lean years in farming, she stayed close to home: Arkansas State University, where she studied communications.
After graduating in 2003, she worked on a congressional campaign in Little Rock before landing a job in the Arkansas United States House of Representatives. She would eventually make it back home to Missouri, buy a house on the street where she grew up, and work in the credit department of a seed and chemical company.
She had met Win Rockefeller five years earlier at a gym in Little Rock, where a trainer introduced them. They dated briefly, but his father had recently passed away and Rockefeller wasn’t ready to get serious. They kept in touch and got back together when she asked him about his New Year’s plans. They married a year later, on New Year’s Eve 2011.
With the name Rockefeller comes a family mantra that goes back five generations: philanthropy.
In addition to the two organizations where she serves as a board member, Rockefeller and her husband have had minor roles on behalf of Easterseals, the arts, and women and children, including resources for domestic violence survivors.
Her challenge is to say no to charities because something else is deemed more valuable. Rockefeller has a “strict two-board rule”.
“I’m a mother and wife first, so I’ve just learned to say no,” Rockefeller says from her 6-acre home west of Little Rock. “I can’t give it the attention it needs and be the mother and wife I need to be.”
Motherhood came in 2013, when she was in her early thirties: twin boys, who gave birth eight weeks early after an emergency C-section. One would spend 38 days in the UAMS neonatal intensive care unit in Little Rock, the other 51 days. Becoming a mother was, she says, the defining moment in her life.
“I was rushed to an emergency room. That moment when they said, ‘We’re going to have to put you to sleep’ was a little nerve-wracking. What would happen if I woke up?” she says. “When they rolled the babies in and I could touch their blankets, it was emotional. Nothing would ever be the same. Winning and I wouldn’t be the priority; now there are four of us.”
Rockefeller describes her husband and herself as “very private” about their sons, now 8 years old. They have not had a professional photo taken and they are not posting pictures of their sons on social media. Win Rockefeller was a teenager before his photo was taken and bodyguards had accompanied him to grade school because his father was on someone’s hit list.
And like their father, fraternal twins Winthrop Paul Rockefeller III and Jackson Craig Rockefeller will one day be expected to fulfill the family duty of philanthropy.
Their mother says they’ve already started: When she and her sons were making children’s masks to wear to the doctor’s office last year, one suggested making more and selling them to raise money for the cancer institute. She says they posted them on Facebook and raised nearly $10,000 from donors in 15 states.
“They have a duty to give back,” Rockefeller says of her sons. “I think it comes naturally; they see the things we do.”
The Rockefellers will chair a telethon on Sept. 8 to raise money for the family’s greatest benefactor: the Rockefeller Cancer Institute of UAMS. It is broadcast by three television stations in Arkansas at various times during the day. Last year’s telethon, which raised more than $450,000 according to Rockefeller, was held after the planned in-person gala had to be canceled due to the pandemic. Rockefeller says that when the idea of a telethon was floated last year, it was taken by surprise by some.
Tiffany Robinson and her husband, Daniel, are active in philanthropy with the Rockefellers. She agrees with Rockefeller that past leaders have done well, but in the new era of pandemic and its variants, they need to look at ways to do things differently.
“You have to know when to turn,” says Tiffany Robinson. “She knows there is a lot of work to be done in the community. She wants to roll up her sleeves, get involved and make it happen.
“Philanthropy is as important to her as it is to win. That’s part of being the perfect match,” Robinson says.
One economist who has written about nonprofits said he’s not surprised that philanthropy goes five generations beyond the Rockefeller patriarch.
“The name is synonymous with wealth, but it is also synonymous with giving wealth away,” said David Hoaas, an economics professor at Centenary College. “There is a family tradition of tying their dollars to the medical community. Even if generations before had not contracted cancer, the family would still give to philanthropy.”
Perhaps no other child outside of her immediate family draws Natalie Rockefeller’s heart more than Myleigh, who is entering high school this year.
Arkansas Children’s Hospital treats children with NF. But when they turn 18, they need to be treated elsewhere. There are 1,000 people in Arkansas with NF, and three out of four are adults. Complications of the disease can include hearing loss, headaches, cognitive and cardiovascular problems. Girls may need mammograms sooner. Some adults cannot live alone.
Proponents of an adult clinic in Arkansas have managed to get one doctor to see adult patients once a week at the Rockefeller Cancer Institute, Rockefeller says. It’s been a slow process, working with the national organization that advocates for NF patients, she says.
Rockefeller will step down from the board of the Children’s Tumor Foundation after this year. By then, she hopes the clinic will be fully operational.
“You don’t need an entire wing (of a medical facility) — just a few doctors who can treat, monitor, and advocate for them,” she says.
Rockefeller says she will always be Myleigh’s champion.
“I’ve had the chance to watch this little girl grow up,” she says. “Every time I’m involved in a conversation about the need for an adult NF clinic, Myleigh’s face comes to mind. Now she will definitely receive the best care as an adult living with NF.”
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: December 1, 1980; Jonesboro
WHAT I DO TO RELAX: Reading
LAST TWO BOOKS I READ: “The Personal Librarian” and “American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt”
WHAT I MOST IN PEOPLE: Integrity
What bothers me the most: dishonesty
WHICH PERSON DO I LIKE THE MOST: My late grandfather, Hal E. Hunter, Jr.
THE PHILANTHROPIST I FIND THE MOST IS: Rick Fleetwood
THE ONLY WORD TO SUMME ME TOGETHER: Loyal
“When they rolled the babies in and I could touch their blankets, it was emotional. Nothing would ever be the same. Winning and I wouldn’t be the priority; now there are four of us.” -Natalie Rockefeller (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)