By on October 19th, 2019

Governor William G. Milliken

1922-2019

Gov. William G. Milliken of Michigan, far right, with, from left, George H.W. Bush, Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan at a rally in Bloomfield, Mich., during Mr. Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign (Credit Walt Zeboski/Associated Press)

William G. Milliken, 97, the longest-serving and perhaps most beloved governor in Michigan history, passed away October 18, 2019 at the home he built 60 years ago in Traverse City, Michigan.

 Governor Milliken, who served from 1969 until he voluntarily retired from office in 1983, left a proud legacy of environmental protection unmatched by any other governor, worked hard to bring the state’s various regions together, and set an example for civility and decency that is sorely missed today.

Although he was a lifelong Republican, he was always eager to work with members of both parties, and wasn’t afraid to endorse Democrats, including President Barack Obama, when he thought they were the better candidate.

Though many national figures tried to get him to run for the U.S. Senate, or even President, he had only wanted to be governor since he began a boyhood correspondence with former Michigan Gov. Chase Osborn — and often said he was content to be the best governor he could possibly be.

William Milliken was born in Traverse City on March 26, 1922, the son of James T. Milliken and Hildegarde Grawn Milliken.  He enrolled at Yale University, his father’s alma mater, in 1940, but temporarily left to join the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II. Though he would later be remembered as one of the state’s most mild-manned politicians, Milliken was an authentic war hero.

He flew 50 missions as a waist gunner on a B-24 heavy bomber, something very few fliers survived.  He was repeatedly wounded and received many medals, including a Silver Star, the Purple Heart and three Bronze Service Stars.

After the war, he finished his degree at Yale, and returned to Traverse City after marrying the former Helen Wallbank of Denver, who he met during the war and who had graduated from Smith College.

 The future governor then built up and expanded the group of family department stores, J.W. Milliken, Inc.  He and Helen also built their home on Peninsula Drive in Traverse City where they would live for the rest of their lives.

In 1960, he beat a three-term incumbent in the Republican primary to win nomination, and then election, to the Michigan state senate, where he led a drive to revitalize and modernize the state Republican Party. He was following in the footsteps of both his father and grandfather who previously held that senate seat.

 Four years later, Bill Milliken won a tough battle at the GOP state convention to win the nomination for lieutenant governor, running with incumbent George Romney, the first time the nominees ran as a unified ticket under the new Michigan state constitution.

In January 1969 George Romney resigned to become U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in President Richard Nixon’s cabinet, and William Milliken was sworn in as Michigan’s 44th governor.  

Milliken then won two close elections for governor in his own right in 1970 and 1974. In 1978, he easily won a third term, becoming the first – and only — Republican gubernatorial candidate since the Great Depression to win Wayne County.

He never lost an election.

Governor Milliken was deeply committed to protecting Michigan’s air, water and land. He was a firm believer in the need to revitalize Michigan’s urban areas. He also was a firm believer that the state must help its largest city, and managed to get a controversial Detroit equity package through the legislature despite strong opposition from many in his own party.  

He fervently supported efforts to protect the Great Lakes, and after retiring from elected office became chairman in 1983 of the Chicago-based Center for the Great Lakes.  He also headed the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council along with co-chair Frank Kelley. The William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor in Detroit was named for him in 2009 as a way of honoring both his commitment to the environment –and to the City of Detroit.      

Following his years in office, Governor Milliken went on to serve on numerous boards and commissions, including that of the Chrysler Corporation, Conrail, the Ford Foundation and the Police Foundation in Washington, DC, which he chaired for many years. He also campaigned for prison reform and shorter sentences for minor drug offenses, and was a strong supporter of the Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project.  

Governor Milliken is survived by his son, William Milliken of Ann Arbor.  He was predeceased in 2012 by his wife, Helen Wallbank Milliken, an outspoken fighter for women’s rights, member of the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, and co-founder of ArtTrainUSA.  His daughter, Elaine Milliken, an attorney, died of cancer in 1993. 

The family is deeply indebted to its loyal cadre of care givers for their selfless, ongoing support, and to Hospice of Traverse City for the caring they so capably provided.

A memorial service will be held next May, on a date to be determined. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions be made to either the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy or For Love of Water/FLOW.

His ashes will be interred next to those of his wife and daughter in the Mackinac Island Cemetery. The family is served by Reynolds-Jonkhoff Funeral Home (www.reynolds-jonkhoff.com) in Traverse City, Michigan.

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Peter C Eckstein

Bill Milliken inherited a good bit of money from his father, as Donald Trump did from his. That is the only point of similarity I know between the two men. Governor Milliken was a man of great personal and political decency who always put the welfare of the people above any private or political interest of his own. He constantly reached out to people with different views than his own, and he even appointed many of them to positions of authority. He accomplished many constructive things during his years in office by bringing people together rather than by pandering to… Read more »


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