Milliken remembered as ‘great’ man, coalition builder at memorial service

By: - August 7, 2020 5:58 am

Former Gov. William Milliken

Speakers fondly remembered the late William Milliken, Michigan’s longest-serving governor, during a moving 90-minute service held Thursday at Interlochen Center for the Arts located near Traverse City. 

Milliken died at age 97 on Oct. 18, 2019. His term of office extended between January 1969 to January 1983. Bill Milliken Jr., his son, helped to lead the service. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives an update on COVID-19 | Gov. Whitmer office photo

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer attended the service and spoke about the moderate Republican who left a significant legacy of environmental stewardship.   

“Last year, Michiganders lost a true statesman, a model of bipartisanship, and a Michigan icon who served our people with integrity and honor,” said Whitmer, a Democrat. “In his 14 years of service to our state, Gov. Bill Milliken taught us a number of powerful lessons that leaders everywhere will carry with them for decades.”

Whitmer’s father, Richard Whitmer, worked in the Milliken administration as state commerce department director. 

“Gov. Milliken is deservedly known for his commitment to protecting our environment, investing in public education, and preserving jobs in the auto industry,” said Whitmer. “He understood that in Michigan, a strong foundation is built on the preservation of our Great Lakes and freshwater, quality education for our kids, and paths to good jobs for everyone in our state. Now, decades later, these values still hold true. And the paths that we take to meet these goals can define who we are as leaders and as Michiganders, and we must work together to get it done.”

Milliken was born in Traverse City on March 26, 1922. After serving during World War II, where he flew 50 combat missions as a waist-gunner on B-24 bombers and survived two crash landings. Milliken, a Yale University graduate, was elected to a Michigan Senate seat in 1960. He became lieutenant governor in 1965.

When Gov. George Romney was tapped by the President Richard Nixon administration to serve as the first U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary in January 1969, Milliken ascended to the governorship. 

Bill Rustem, a longtime aide to Milliken, said, “Today is hard,” as he opened his remarks. He called Milliken “a great and decent man” and pointed out that his service in the Milliken administration began 50 years ago. Rustem referred to it as a “career-defining” experience. 

“There is so much that could be said about Bill Milliken,” Rustem said. “He believed fervently in the ideals of public service. He was kind and he was tolerant. He was witty and disarming. And he was always genteel.”  

Milliken served during the economically challenged 1970s and early ‘80s when the American automobile industry suffered through an international oil embargo and rising competition from foreign automakers. He helped lead the way to persuade the federal government to bail out Chrysler Corporation during its turbulent economic times in 1979. His tenure was also a period of racial strife and white flight from the state’s largest city, Detroit. It commanded much of his time and energy and resulted in, at times, outrage from outstate residents. 

Chuck Stokes, longtime WXYZ-TV editorial director and chair of the Historical Society of Michigan, called Milliken “a true statesman.” 

“Milliken, a lifelong Republican, worked hard at keeping a nonpartisan profile,” Stokes said. “He built coalitions, partnerships and lived up to that age-old adage that politics make strange bedfellows. His genuine friendship with Detroit Democratic Mayor Coleman A. Young gave them the title of ‘Michigan’s odd couple.’”

Milliken and Young worked together to help bring the 1980 Republican National Convention to the Motor City. Milliken also exhibited great compassion toward civil rights and equal opportunity. 

During his early months as Michigan governor in 1969, Miliken delayed a move into the newly state-acquired mansion. He made the decision after learning that the deed on the home given to the state by Howard Sober, a Lansing trucking executive, had restrictive covenant language forbidding occupancy by Blacks. After then-Attorney General Frank Kelley ruled that the discriminatory language was unlawful, Milliken moved into the home.

The same year, Milliken opened an office in Detroit, one of America’s largest cities with a significant Black population. 

“The problems of the city are the problems of us all, whether we live in the Upper Peninsula, Benton Harbor or Detroit,” Milliken said at the time.

Milliken Drive in the Traverse City area | Susan J. Demas

Writer Jack Lessenberry reminded attendees that Milliken not only served during tough economic times but also through fellow Republican Richard M. Nixon’s impeachment and ultimate resignation from the U.S. presidency in August 1974. Yet Milliken won reelection three months later. 

“He never lost an election,” Lessenberry noted.  

Milliken’s moderate politics didn’t jibe with an increasingly hard-right Republican Party in recent decades. While he endorsed Republicans like U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president in 2008 and now-former Gov. Rick Snyder twice in 2010 and 2014, Milliken’s Democratic endorsements, like Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016, angered many Republicans. His Grand Traverse Republican Party even condemned Milliken that year for endorsing Clinton.

Whitmer closed her remarks this way: “He led by example, and that example should remind us every day to never abuse, or ignore, or forget the sacred trust of public service,” she said. “It should remind us that there is an important role of government, and that is to never forget those we serve, and to treat them with humanity, dignity, and respect.” 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.