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William G. Milliken, Michigan's longest serving governor, is dead at 97

Governor William Milliken
Bentley Historical Library
Governor William Milliken and First Lady Helen Milliken

William G. Milliken, who led the state from 1969 to 1983, died on Friday at the age of 97. He was sometimes referred to as Michigan's "gentleman" governor.

He is widely remembered as a gracious person, who treated everyone with respect. And he was known for his devotion to the kind of bipartisan leadership that has become increasingly rare in today's divisive political atmosphere.

His former policy advisor Bill Rustem described the beliefs that drove Milliken's public life:

"The importance of dealing with people straight on, being principled, being honest,' said Rustem. "But always keeping in mind what the end goal was. And thinking not just about this generation. But thinking two or three generations ahead and how are you going to make life better for them."

Rustem said the call to public service was strong for Milliken.

"He believed there was a role for government in making certain that everybody was treated equally and making certain large issues like our environment, like our infrastructure, were paid for and protected in an appropriate way," Rustem said.

After flying 50 combat missions as a waist-gunner on B-24 bombers in World War II, Milliken returned to his home town of Traverse City to run the family department store. 

In 1960 he turned to public life. He served as state senator and then was elected lieutenant governor.

In 1969, he achieved his teenage dream of becoming governor of Michigan, when then-governor George Romney stepped down to join the cabinet of President Richard Nixon.

Milliken was re-elected governor three times, serving a total of 14 years until 1983.

Milliken was a Republican who remained steadfastly moderate, even as his party drifted to the right.

Rustem said when Milliken became governor, Michigan was reeling from serious pollution problems: rising rates of asthma, raw sewage in rivers, and the famous declaration of Lake Erie's death.

"During his administration, Governor Milliken really led the way for the state and the nation into a new era of environmental responsibility," said Rustem.

Even though Milliken's final term ended more than 35 years ago, many of his environmental initiatives remain with us today.

Because of him, Michigan has a landmark beverage container deposit law that brought bottle and can recycling to the state.

Milliken banned the pesticide DDT, and pushed legislation that protected wetlands. He won limits on the use of phosphates in laundry detergent. And he played a major role in helping to prevent the diversion of water from the Great Lakes.

Rustem said the biggest challenge of Milliken's public life was the PBB crisis in the 1970s, when workers at a private company mistakenly poured the chemical compound into animal feed.

"It was a million animals of various kinds that had to be destroyed because they had been fed contaminated food, which was then affecting the food chain," said Rustem.

Critics said Milliken's administration was slow to respond. But Rustem said Milliken rose to the occasion in trademark fashion.

"He never talked about blaming other people. He said, 'We've got a problem. We've got to fix it,'" said Rustem. "And he would move forward and did."

Milliken believed everyone should have an equal chance.

He successfully fought for fair housing legislation. He sought more equitable ways to pay for K-12 education in Michigan.

And Milliken worked to try to save Detroit from financial disaster, angering many who did not want to help the economically distressed city or its Democratic mayor, Coleman Young.

Adolph Mongo, a political advisor to Young, said Milliken and Young became friends despite their different backgrounds, temperaments, and party affiliations. When Young died, Milliken gave a eulogy at his funeral.

"They respected each other. They could work together," said Mongo. "They didn't have these issues with, 'Oh you know what, you're Republican. You're Democrat. I'm not with you,'" said Mongo. "And you look at how crazy politics is today, you wish you had those kind of relationships again."

Mongo said that Milliken knew that if Detroit thrived, the state thrived.

"He didn't look at Detroit as a black city, as a city with white flight," said Mongo. "He looked at it as: This is our largest city."

Mongo said Milliken viewed himself as the governor of everyone, and he led with compassion.

"He always was concerned about the high incarceration of African-American men coming out of Detroit," said Mongo. "And that's one of the reasons why he really worked hard to try to bring employment back to the city."

According to Dave Dempsey, author of a biography of Milliken, civility in public life was an important part of his contribution.

"He consulted regularly with legislative leaders of both parties. And he did not dictate to the legislature what they needed to do, but tried to reach agreement on things," said Dempsey. "And he was a hard man to dislike. People from various political philosophies looked at him and really just found him to be somebody who was agreeable and eager to do the right thing for the citizenry."

Dempsey said Milliken's legacy is intertwined with that of his wife Helen Milliken, who died in 2012.  

They each were passionate advocates for environmental protection.

She became a nationally renowned activist in favor of reproductive choice and the Equal Rights Amendment, positions Milliken also supported, according to Dempsey.

"He vetoed restrictions on Medicaid payments for abortions numerous times during office," said Dempsey.

But Dempsey said sometimes her advocacy could make things uncomfortable for him tactically when he was governor.

"During the 1980 National Republican Party convention in Detroit, she was standing outside picketing the party itself for its platform, which had revoked its previous support for the Equal Rights Amendment."

In a 2006 WKAR Public TV interview, Milliken reflected back on his years in politics.

"If I were to look back 25 years from now, I think I can honestly say I had a sense of commitment to advance the public good and not advance my own narrow political goals," said Milliken. "And that I have contributed, maybe in some small way, to a better Michigan."

A true son of the state, Milliken remained – from the time he left office in 1983 until his death –  in the Traverse City area he so loved, where he had been born and raised.

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