Pure Michigan- Pure Gentleman

Apr 7, 2017 by

Tom Watkins –

Watching him from afar as a young political professional, I recall he seemed to have a Southern gentleness and a caring soul. It was in the way he carried himself: Self-assured. Humility radiating from his being.

Governor Millikan was in office from January 22,1969 to January 1, 1983, serving under the Capitol Dome as the 44th and longest-serving Governor in Michigan’s history.

Truly a good man – William Milliken.

I first met Governor Milliken when I served as an elected member and chairman of the legislative committee for the Wayne County Charter Commission. A young man in my mid 20’s, I was impressed when, as a group, our Charter Commission presented our newly minted “County Reform” document to the governor in his conference room in the State Capitol. Little did I know at the time that I would one day have an office down the hall when in 1983, I became Governor Blanchard’s Deputy Chief of Staff.

Governor Milliken, who turned 95 on March 26th, 2017, is a Republican and yet few today can recognize his middle-of-the-road pragmatism in this day and age of hyper- partisanship. Many of his fellow Republicans might today call him a RINO – Republican in Name Only – or worse.

As governor, he dealt with the tough political and policy issues of the day, ranging from PBB tainted animal feed, educational reform, environmental protection, mental health reform, and the state’s financial crises du jour.

What I would call him is a decent man of value and conviction.

Governor Milliken was half of the Odd Couple relationship along with Coleman Young, the firebrand Mayor of Detroit from 1974 to 1993. The two were genuine friends who shared a desire to see the city and the state thrive. They believed deeply in public service and public trust.

Bob Berg, who served as Governor Milliken’s Press Secretary during the governor’s last 6 years in office and who eventually joined Mayor Young’s office in a similar capacity, explained, “Neither politician took a poll to decide what position to take, they wanted to do right by the citizens and that drove their every move. For both men, their word and their handshake was their bond.”

It was a friendship that transcended politics and they stayed in close touch even after Governor Milliken left office. Bob Berg proclaimed with a touch of nostalgia in his voice, “Mayor Young believed until his dying day Governor Milliken was the best governor Michigan ever had or ever will have.”

Standing on Principle

Governor Milliken is a man who stands on principle and was willing to break party rank when he believed it was right for Michigan or America.

He endorsed U.S. Senator John Kerry in his 2004 bid to unseat George W. Bush as POTUS stating, “The truth is that President George W. Bush does not speak for me or for many other moderate Republicans on a very broad cross section of issues.”

In the most recent presidential race, Governor Milliken denounced Donald Trump and announced his support for Hillary Clinton for President saying Donald Trump “does not embody Republican ideals.”

George Weeks, an exceptional political columnist for The Detroit News back in the day, went on to serve as the governor’s press secretary and chief of staff. He remains a friend until this day and said with pride that Governor Milliken’s “voice is strong and direct and needs to be heard across the GOP landscape today.”

Pat Babcock, ‘Mr. Everything’ for Gov. Milliken, a man I admired and who later became a mentor of mine when I served under him as Deputy of Administration and Chief Deputy of the old Department of Mental Health served Milliken in a variety of capacities including Director of the Office of Drug Abuse & Alcoholism, Director the Office of Services to the Aging, Executive Assistant for Legislative Affairs, Special Counsel to the Governor/ Secretary to the Cabinet, Director of the Department of Labor, and Director of Mental Health.

He had this to say about his old boss, “At times of national and often state disillusionment about our political leadership, Bill Milliken continues to set the gold standard for public service. He approaches public issues with great integrity, respect for others, and a commitment to an inclusive and progressive Michigan community.”

Keeping It Clean

Milliken signed over a dozen major environmental bills into law, many of them evolving from his original ideas about wetlands conservation, hazardous waste management, inland lakes and streams protection, and what is now the state Natural Resources Trust Fund, a public land acquisition and protection program capitalized by proceeds from oil and gas drilling on state lands.

Craig Ruff served as Gov. Milliken’s Special Assistant on Human Services from 1972-79 and recently retired as Governor Snyder’s Education Advisor. His thoughts perfectly echo my own thoughts about Milliken when he says, “The end will never come to the good that he has done.”

Respected Great Lakes conservationist and author Dave Dempsey captured a lasting and profound legacy of our past environmental stewardship in his 2006 biography, William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate when he spoke admiringly, saying, “Milliken and the times converged to create what increasingly looks like a golden age in Michigan environmental protection. He championed and signed most of our major environmental bills. I grew up hearing about him at the dinner table because my dad was in his cabinet. He always said Milliken was the most decent man he met in politics. http://mynorth.com/2008/03/governor-millikens-environmental-legacy/.

Gov. Milliken’s legacy is being extended by another moderate governor of Michigan, our current Governor Snyder, who Milliken endorsed when Snyder was not polling at the margin of error in his first run for public office. Governor Snyder is full of praise for Governor Milliken proclaiming, “Governor Milliken has always been a true leader who put people first. Throughout his many years in office, it was clear how passionate he was about Michigan’s future. Still going strong at age 95, Governor Milliken continues to be a role model who proves you don’t have to play politics to accomplish things in government. I am very fortunate to know him and to have learned from his positive style of leadership.”

Jack Lessenberry, Michigan’s premier journalist, had this to say about our Gentlemen Governor, “So what you need to know is this: As governor, he tried to fix problems, not the blame. He worked hard and effectively to get things done. He is a big part of the reason we have bottle and can recycling in this state. He was no wimp. He was repeatedly wounded and barely survived World War II. But he treated everyone with courtesy and civility, even reporters.”


His Rock

It is impossible to write about Bill Milliken without mention of his soulmate, partner, and wife, Helen (Dec 4, 1922 – Nov 16, 2012). She was a giant and a force in her own right as an outspoken advocate of women’s rights, the environment, and other political issues. Many credit her with the preservation of the Pigeon River State Forest. At her urging she prodded her husband to hike the area and he later decided to limit oil and gas development in the scenic forest. (http://m.legacy.com/ns/helen-milliken-obituary/161093795#sthash.kBBwoW05.dpuf)

His son, Bill Milliken Jr., speaks admirably about his dad saying, “My father is a hard act to follow. The bar was always set high in our household. But he was the same behind closed doors: measured, mannered, thoughtful and compassionate.”

Governor Milliken still resides in Traverse City and he deserves to know he added value and made a difference for our great state. There are lessons we can all learn from this senior statesman.

Our State Motto: “If you seek a pleasant peninsula look about you”. While it was not created by Governor Milliken, it will be sustained by his legacy.

You can read more about Gov. William Milliken’s legacy here:


Cover Photo Credit:  Douglas Elbinger

Tom Watkins  is president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. He served the citizens of Michigan as state mental health director and state superintendent of schools. He is known for his creative and innovative thinking and working across the political aisle to produce progress for the citizens of Michigan. He can be emailed at: tdwatkins88@gmail.com, or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88

Source: Pure Michigan- Pure Gentleman | DomeMagazine.com

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