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ON THE SCENE: Growing up a Rockefeller

July 23, 2015
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Imagine growing up as a member of the Kennedys, Bushes, Roosevelts, Cuomos, or Rockefellers - last names associated with wealth, prominence and political power.

American dynasties are not a new thing. Others in politics have been the Tafts, Adamses and the Harrisons, while in Hollywood they include the Carradines, Barrymores, Redgraves, and the Fondas, and in business the Fords, Murdochs, Waltons and Kochs.

Eileen Rockefeller, daughter of David Rockefeller, former chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, niece of Nelson, the former governor of New York who left the political legacy of "Rockefeller Republicans," still a major influence in this state, and granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller, founder of the Standard Oil, was the opening speaker of the Lake Placid Institute's summer Adirondack Roundtable this past weekend.

Article Photos

Eileen Rockefeller signing books after her July 18 presentation.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Eileen, author of "Being a Rockefeller; Becoming Myself," is one of the "cousins" - the 24 fourth generation heirs of John D. Rockefeller, people who grew up in an opulent lifestyle in grand mansions, and experience that many found to be a burden as described in PBS television's American Experience documentary "The Rockefellers."

J.D. Rockefeller amassed the initial family fortune through ruthless business practices under Standard Oil as he sought to control the oil business, while at the same time gave away over $540 million in his lifetime equal to $2 billion in today's dollars. His son equaled his level of giving, and grandson David gave away nearly a billion in his lifetime.

"The Cousins" inherited a name that was vilified by some, loved by others, and few had a neutral stance. Living a "normal" life was out of the question.

"I am a descendent of John D. Rockefeller, the oil magnate, who I never knew, but I did know his son my grandfather John D. Rockefeller Jr.," said Eileen. "It is quite a mantle to wear to have been born into this family. My parents are the late Peggy and David Rockefeller. I am the youngest of six. In those days, growing up in the '50s and '60s, life of course was more formal. The life in our four homes was filled with expectations. Often 50 people a day would come through the house and we were expected to curtsey, look them in the eye and know many of their names. There were many pressures."

The pressures were not just social, but to do well in education, sports and other activities. For her, an added burden, as she now knows, was she was living with dyslexia. Schooling was a special challenge. The outcome was that she became overwhelmed. Being a Rockefeller was more than a young girl of 9 could handle, and thus her mother began looking for solutions making the difficult decision to send her then 11-year-old daughter away first to Camp Treetops, and then to continue as a student at North Country School.

"I took the leap at North Country School to a new start on life," said Eileen. She spoke about being bottled up by fear and at North Country she learned that "It didn't matter where you began, the lesson was to begin."

The beginning was music under the tutelage of Don Rand, who attended the talk, and writing. She spoke of great fondness of the wisdom and guidance she received from Walter Clark, founder and head of the school. She shared two stories, one where he gave her the opportunity to lead a 7-mile snowshoe hike from the school through the pass on the back side of Pitchoff to his place near Clifford Falls, a hike wherein she learned the true meaning of leadership, which does not always mean being out front breaking trail, but leading from behind. In the other story, she was given the opportunity learn from being bad.

"We all need wise mentors in our lives, and we need others to balance what we've learned in our own family," said Eileen.

For the cousins, the challenge of finding their own place in society, life and in their own skins was not easy. Most did through learning how to live lives more modest than their parents and uncles and often through carving their own niche in philanthropy. In 1983, she founded the Institute for the Advancement of Health that explores the mind-body connection to good health, and in 1994, she co-founded the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning to promote social and emotional learning in schools. More recently she became the founding chair of the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors that has among its goals encouraging philanthropy and philanthropic leadership.

Clearly Eileen found that balance, based on a set of multi-generational shared values, learning how to set her own priorities, deepening and strengthening family, and through the wise use of storytelling.

In this case, she wrote a memoir on what it was like growing up as a Rockefeller and sharing the life lessons learned along the way such as it's not the size of one's bank account that matters but the size of one's heart.

"She suffered and now she has a life of her own," said Rosa Tejada. "I was very impressed by her honesty, openness, boldness and the way her experiences can help all of us. I have had to deal with some similar issues. I am very happy she got the help she needed to overcome her challenges. It takes a great deal of courage to get up and talk about something one can feel shame about and turn it into a strength in a manner that can help others. She told her story in a way that you can relate to her."

"I thought it was excellent," said Greer St. John. "She brought in how to heal oneself and it didn't have anything to do with money. "It's really about letting go of ones fears and then your healing process can begin."

The Adirondack Roundtables were proposed and first led by Martin Stone, who after three years turned their reins over to Jack Bogle.

"I was in Aspen with my family, and because I wasn't an alpine skier I ended up spending a lot of time at the Aspen Institute," said Stone. "I wondered if a similar program would work in the Adirondacks."

Held at the Lake Placid Conference Center, they have proved a success with Eileen Rockefeller filling the venue.

Next up on Aug. 8 is David M. Childs, architect of the One World Trade Center (Freedom Tower) in New York City that has opened to rave reviews. On Aug. 15, it is Ellen Stofan, chief scientist at NASA. Advanced registrations are urged. Call 518-523-1312, or email, or go to



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