John D. Rockefeller Jr., son of the oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, paid for Colonial Williamsburg to be reconstructed into a modern-day homage to the city that once stood.
Now, his granddaughter is revisiting the city to speak with Colonial Williamsburg’s president about her first book, a memoir about her family.
Eileen Rockefeller will visit Colonial Williamsburg for a conversation with Colin Campbell, president and CEO of Colonial Williamsburg, at 4:45 p.m. Oct. 25 about “Being a Rockefeller, Becoming Myself.” The conversation will take place in the Hennage Auditorium of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. At 4 p.m. Oct. 25, Rockefeller will sign copies of her book; a reception in the Museum Café will take place following the discussion.
Visiting Colonial Williamsburg will be a nostalgic experience for Rockefeller, who said she did not know her grandmother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller — to whom her memoir is dedicated for giving her a sense of belonging — and she only knew her grandfather until she was about 9 years old.
“I feel a deep sense of gratitude to my grandfather and grandmother … when I’m at Colonial Williamsburg, I feel somehow connected to their spirits,” Rockefeller said.
Colonial Williamsburg is one of her favorite places to visit, which she has done at least 10 times in her life. Her youngest son Danny, now 25, trained as a blacksmith as a child and spent time working in the blacksmith shop in Colonial Williamsburg before attending Princeton University.
“I absolutely love going there and we go probably every few years,” Rockefeller said.
Sparking her visit to Colonial Williamsburg later this month isn’t a family vacation, it’s the book she took six years to write. She started the memoir after Danny left the family’s Vermont home on an organic farm to attend Princeton.
“I realized that my day-to-day mothering duties were behind me and it sort of started an identity crisis,” Rockefeller said in an interview. “I looked at my husband and said, ‘What are we going to do?’”
Rockefeller threw herself into two projects: starting the Growald Family Fund — a venture with her husband, Paul Growald, and their two sons, Danny and Adam, to stem climate change and reduce carbon emissions by preventing coal-fired power plant construction — and writing stories about her favorite memories of times spent with her sons.
One of her favorite memories was a five-month period when Danny and Adam were 8 and 10, respectively, the family spent living as if they were on a farm in the 1840s. They grew and processed their own food, raised chickens and processed them and sheared sheep and executed the spinning and dying process to make yarn they then weaved.
“That was just great fun, but that has to be a book for later,” Rockefeller said. She transitioned the focus of her book onto her own childhood, which she used to establish her own parenting techniques, and which influenced the farming experiences Rockefeller gave her own children.
“I learned from my parents that nature is one of the greatest teachers, and in nature there are no judges … we learn about ourselves through the metaphors provided through nature,” Rockefeller said.
After writing 20 stories about her sons’ childhood, she realized it was too soon in their lives for her to turn that into a book; that’s when she turned back to her own childhood for inspiration. She examined her memories of her childhood, bringing forth the stories that shaped who she is today.
One of the most prevalent themes of the memoir is her identity struggle.
“I have wrestled with the identity of being a Rockefeller and, as everyone wrestles with the task of finding themselves, I also wrestle with that challenge,” she said. “Net worth is not as important as self worth.”
In the early 1980s, when Rockefeller was 33 years old, she founded her first nonprofit: Institute for the Advancement of Health, which aimed to understand mind and body interactions in health. About 10 years later, she co-founded Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning with the aim of correlating children’s academic successes with emotional intelligence and overall health. Rockefeller said social and emotional skills are the missing pieces in education and development but are necessary to succeed.
Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors was one of Rockefeller’s project in the early 2000s; it is now the largest philanthropy services provider in the world, Rockefeller said. The group’s mission is to advise donors in creating thoughtful and effective philanthropic ventures around the world. Rockefeller and her husband founded the Champlain Valley Greenbelt Alliance, also in the early 2000s, to promote and protect roadscapes along Route 7 in Vermont, which Rockefeller said is a major historic road in the state.
Being a Rockefeller afforded these opportunities.
“It opens doors. I’m able to reach almost anyone on the phone who relates to something I want to do of value in the world; so that just comes with having the name,” Rockefeller said. “Now, in order to make the best use of those connections, I have to step through the door and step up to the challenge, but I’m given a leg up to the door simply because of my name.”
Speaking in terms of net worth aiding self worth, Rockefeller said there are many people in the world who have far more money than she, and many who have far less, “but even with the comfort of wealth, it’s ultimately the connections we make … that inform our self-worth, our sense of personal value in the world.”
Without self-worth, Rockefeller said it may be impossible to be happy. With that notion, Rockefeller’s family comes into play.
“Family is what shapes us. It’s our first mirror even though our first reflection is inaccurate. And a corollary to that, as I have experienced personally, I can leave my family, but it won’t leave me.”
With the focus of Rockefeller’s book being the stories and experiences that shape who she became, she hopes others will draw inspiration for their own lives. With some broken or hurt relationships, Rockefeller realized until she healed those, she would inflict the sense of those broken relationships onto her marriage, relationship with her children, friends or coworkers. Rockefeller said this is something all people struggle with until family relationships are healed.
“There are many forces pulling at the seams of family and what I would like to put on the front burner of conversation … is how we can strengthen and heal our families as a means of strengthening and healing our society,” Rockefeller said.
The conversation with Campbell on Oct. 25 will focus on Rockefeller’s memoir. For more information about Rockefeller and “Being a Rockefeller, Becoming Myself,” visit Rockefeller’s website. For the conversation at Hennage Auditorium, a Good Neighbor Pass, Annual Pass, Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket or Museum ticket will be required for admission to the event. Copies of Rockefeller’s book will be available for sale.