“The simple truth is that Michigan has always been and will always be a ‘quality of life’ state. The truth is that the quality of human life in Michigan depends on nature. The natural beauty of Michigan is much more than a souce of pleasure or recreation. It shapes our values, molds our attitudes, feeds our spirits.” Gov. Milliken wrote the foreword for Dave Dempsey’s Ruin and Recovery

By Alan Campbell

Gov. Bill Milliken had little time for Friday cocktail parties. He could be found at the end of a long week patiently sitting on the steps at the rear of the Michigan Capitol, waiting for a ride to his beloved Traverse City.

Should a stranger walk by and recognize him, all the better to pass the time.

“If you saw him on a Friday afternoon waiting on the back steps of the Capitol waiting for his car to come, he’d say, ‘Sit down for a couple minutes and shoot the breeze,'” said Bob Garner, former television host of Michigan Out-of-Doors and a legislative aide who worked closely across the aisle with Milliken. “He was that kind of guy. He was an incredible individual.”

Golden age of conservation

In today’s terms, William G. Milliken would be one of our unlikely legends of conservation for a couple of reasons.

First, conservation has become a too-little used word, yielding to the more popular environmental mantra. The concept of conserving natural resources has been overshadowed by preserving them. Milliken would be considered an environmentalist in today’s terms — and probably wouldn’t care as long as he left Michigan in better shape than he found it.

Soft-spoken, a reluctant politician and with little personal interest in hunting and fishing, Milliken also was a Republican. And frankly, the perception of Republicans and Democrats as interpreted by the public and media have reversed in the 50 or so years since Milliken pushed Michigan toward a reputation as a national leader in environmental issues.


Other states were facing the same problems that besieged Michigan — laundry phosphorus aging young lakes, DDT build-up threatening the survival of bald eagles, highways littered with valueless cans and bottles — but most could not muster the political will needed to change the status quo.

Milliken was all about getting Michigan to a better place.

“His state of the state message in his last year was 144 pages long,” said Bill Rustem, whose relationship with Milliken started during an internship with the governor’s office while attending Michigan State. “It was a book. He was full of ideas and always wanted to press forward to get things done.”

Rustem started off writing press releases — he specifically recalled hyping the National Asparagus Festival in Hart — important to local communities but of little impact on a statewide scale. He finished as a speechwriter and policy director in Milliken’s administration. Admiration for his boss grew with each of Millken’s 14 years heading state government.

Rustem, who spoke this summer at a memorial service held at the Kresge Auditorium at Interlochen Academy of the Arts, noted that Milliken’s approval rating as he left office in 1982 was 70 percent — among Democrats. It was 83 percent for Republicans. Some 75 percent of African-Americans approved of his job performance, and 70 percent of union members liked him — even after Milliken had been through brush-ups with politically-powerful unions and corporations while blazing a path of protection for Michigan’s land, air and water.

Despite facing a Democratic House of Representatives every year while governor, Milliken’s conservation record includes passage of the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, Truth in Water Pollution Act, Inland Lakes and Stream Act and the Wetlands Protection Act. And the Natural Rivers Act, Truth in Air Pollution Act and Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act.

There were plenty more, all made possible because he excelled in finding common ground among leaders with opposing views.

Milliken was a skillful yet transparent political tactician — something rare these days. Bent on cleaning up Michigan highways, he tried during private meetings to get lawmakers, union bosses and the beverage industry to support a dime deposit on cans and bottles. Lawmakers, driven by concerns about union job losses and business expenses, wouldn’t budge.

So Milliken appealed directly to the public. In 1976 he partnered with MUCC, which collected signatures to put a Constitutional amendment on the ballot. The betting line — and big money — said “no way.” But 64 percent of state residents voted ‘yes.’

Rustem recalls one union boss stating that only “nut cases” would support the bill.

“The fact that the governor was willing to go out and support it gave the bottle bill legitimacy,” Rustem said. “He was a Republican in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt.”

While other states wallowed in politics, Michigan led a movement to preserve or conserve — choose your term — itself despite the expected internal disagreements.

“The phosphorus ban was not popular among factory workers with Amway. The DDT ban was not popular in chemical plants. The bottle bill was not popular in factories that made bottles and cans. It was a different era,” Rustem said.

Garner said Milliken wasn’t afraid to take on his own party. Twice battles raged in the 11th hour over raising taxes to balance the state budget, and twice Milliken confronted reluctant Republicans.

“He spoke to them in small words that were easy to interpret. He told them they needed to dig up a couple more votes or they would get no cooperation from him,” Garner said.
Milliken’s drive was anchored in his political goals.

“To harness the whirlwind of change … to keep it blowing us into paths of progress instead of paths of destruction … that is the greatest challenge we face,” he said in 1969.

Milliken’s eternal partner in policy was his wife, Helen, a woman’s rights leader who proceeded him in death in 2012.

Unlikely path to the Capital

Several turns of events had to go Milliken’s way if he was to become governor. Included were his survival and the promotion of his boss to Washington.

The Milliken name is well-known in the Traverse City area and associated with the former Milliken’s Department Store in the downtown district. His father, candid and unbendingly honest, served in the Michigan Legislature, as did his grandfather. His mother was politically active and community involved. Son Bill’s love for the outdoors was kindled while paddling a stream near Acme and trout fishing “with little success,” according to the program published for his memorial.

He enrolled at Yale University, but felt the call of duty during World War II and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1943. Despite twice parachuting from plummeting B-24s over France and being wounded, he survived 50 missions as a waist gunner. Known as the “Liberator” in military terms, crews nicknamed the B-24 the “flying coffin.” Half of the bombers did not return from the most brutal of runs.

While training in Colorado, Miillken met Helen Wallbank, who agreed to wait for him to return from war. They married in October 1945, one month after he was honorably discharged.

Milliken explained his turn to politics. “After 10 months of flying missions and not knowing whether you’d live another day, you saw how precious life was. I thought frequently how I could live life to the fullest when the war was over. I developed a sense of wanting to give something back. I wanted to make some kind of meaning out of my life,” he said.

After graduating from Yale, Milliken returned to Traverse City to help run the family department store. He served six years as chair of the Grand Traverse Republican Party, then went door-to-door campaigning to unseat an established Republican state senator. He quickly rose among party ranks to majority floor leader, and Republicans chose him to be the running mate of eventual governor George Romney in the 1964 election.

After serving as lieutenant governor, Milliken became the 44th governor of Michigan in 1969 when Romney resigned to serve as Housing and Urban Development (HUD) director in the Nixon administration.
He was quickly given the nickname of “boy governor” by detractors.

“They found out he had a pretty firm backbone,” said Nancy Dockter, who started as Milliken’s receptionist and eventually became his personal secretary. “The world could use a few Bill Millikens. He was from a different time, a gentleman. He had such a sense of fairness about him.”

Dokter recalls helping to organize meetings of what Milliken termed the “quadrant” — the legislative leaders from both political parties.

“They would pretty much meet weekly in his office. He always thought that good policy was better than good politics. That was always important to him,” Dockter said.

Milliken was an active runner, finding time to recreate in the outdoors. On weekends, the Milliken’s would retreat to Traverse City to refresh.

Helen Milliken, a progressive thinker, played an important role in forming public policy away from politicians, lobbyists and pundits, Dockter said. She recalled Helen’s strong interest in preserving Pigeon River State Forest from wide-scale oil drilling, which led to the creation of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund that has channeled nearly $1.2 billion into recreational opportunities for Michigan residents. The petroleum industry, environmentalists and political parties all became involved in what started as state law and eventually became an amendment in the Constitution passed by state voters. Milliken worked hand-in-hand with State Sen. Kerry Kammer, a Democrat from Clarkston.

“It was Helen who was instrumental in preserving the Pigeon River Forest when they were attempting to license to drill for oil there,” recalled Bill Milliken Jr. “She told him it was inappropriate. So he got (a conservation ethic) from growing up, and he got it from his spouse.”

Pure Michigan

Washington came calling after Milliken left office as Republicans considered the popular Michigan governor a shoo-in to win a U.S. Senate seat. Milliken considered.

GOP Senate majority leader Howard Baker whisked him to the nation’s capital, where a picture emerged of life among the powerful and famous.

“They painted him a picture of what life would be like in Washington,” said Bill Jr., a member of the Mackinac Bridge Authority and trustee for Washtenaw Community College. “He said, ‘You know, if I went to Washington, I’m not sure how I’d get back to Traverse City on weekends.'”

Milliken retired without ever losing an election. Having always considered precious Michigan as the best place on earth, dipping into national politics would take away from his work at home.

So Milliken stayed active in Michigan affairs, advocating on behalf of abused women and seeking to reduce life sentences for convicted small-time drug dealers. Gov. Jennifer Granholm appointed him co-chair on a commission studying land use.

In a speech given to an MUCC conference, Milliken eloquently described Michigan’s soul as “found in the soft petals of a trillium, the gentle whisper of a headwater stream, the vista of a Great Lakes shoreline, the wonder in children’s eyes upon seeing their first bald eagle. It is that soul that we must preserve.”

Hundreds of friends, family and associates paid tribute to Milliken at Kresge Auditorium. Speakers included Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and nationally syndicated writer Jack Lessenberry. Bill Jr. estimated that well-wishers were evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

William G. Milliken is quoted from 1979 on the back page of the memorial booklet.

“I, for one, believe that it is the duty of our generation to assure that the world we leave to our children and their children is a clean, green and healthy one. A world with clean water, healthy air and enough untrammeled space to provide for recreation needs; a world that recognizes its resource limits as well as its needs.”