Don Gilmer, ex-state lawmaker, budget director, 'a true public servant' dies at 73

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Over more than 40 years, Don Gilmer held many roles — state lawmaker, government administrator, nonprofit board member — that underscored his commitment to helping others.

“He was a true public servant,” said former House Speaker Paul Hillegonds, a longtime colleague. “He cared about public service.”

Mr. Gilmer died Monday, Aug. 12, 2019, of complications from Lewy body dementia, relatives said. He was 73.

Among the Republican figure’s most high-profile positions was representing parts of Kalamazoo County in the Legislature from 1977-98.

Don Gilmer started his political career in Kalamazoo County and spent his career in public service.

During his tenure, he led the House Appropriations Committee, which decides how state dollars are spent.

Mr. Gilmer earned a reputation not only for having a “tremendous grasp” of issues and facts but his affability, said Ken Sikkema, a former Senate majority leader. “If you wanted to get into an argument with him, it was tough to do. He just had this engaging personality.”

The Michigan native’s skills aided his involvement in the work group that reviewed the property tax and school funding reforms that became Proposal A in 1994.

“He had the temperament, the experience to be a key contributor to the resolution,” said Hillegonds, who appointed him to the Appropriations Committee. “He always sought common ground within our caucus and across the aisle.”

Mr. Gilmer, who was perceived as a moderate, often demonstrated that willingness to breach partisan divide, colleagues recalled.

“He was a guy who had strong views, but he understood the purpose of a legislator was to put together solutions, and that meant working with other people, and he did that very well,” said Dick Posthumus, a former lieutenant governor under John Engler. “He was very highly regarded. People may have disagreed with him, but I think Democrats and Republicans all felt they could talk to him and get along with him.”

After term limits prevented Mr. Gilmer from running again, Engler named him state lottery commissioner.

The governor later appointed Mr. Gilmer to be state budget director. That position also came with challenges, especially when budget pressures emerged.

“I feel like I've been assigned to be captain of the Titanic — after already having seen the movie,” he told The Detroit News in 2001.

As Engler’s tenure wrapped, the governor in 2002 appointed Mr. Gilmer to the Michigan Municipal Bond Authority, which had the power to borrow money, and issue bonds and notes in order to make money available at competitive rates to local governments and schools.

In 2007, then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm named him to an emergency financial advisory panel to determine how to bail the state out of a fiscal crisis, The News reported.

“He’ll be remembered as a problem-solver who worked with people from all sorts of backgrounds,” Posthumus said.

That trait was evident from a young age.

Born Nov. 29, 1945, to Howard and Genevieve Gilmer, he was the second oldest of four sons and grew up on the family farm, Hillcrest Orchards, in Augusta, according to his obituary.

As a child, “he was very even-tempered,” said his brother, Tom Gilmer. “He was a peacemaker.”

After graduating from high school in 1963, he attended Michigan State University. Mr. Gilmer later joined a leadership-development program through the Kellogg Foundation that allowed him to travel the country and abroad, his brother said. “He came back totally changed. It just opened his eyes.”

In the 1970s, Mr. Gilmer served one term on the Kalamazoo County commissioners’ board and was appointed to the Michigan Agriculture Labor Commission by Gov. William Milliken, one of his influences, relatives and associates said.

Though a political newcomer, the Augusta native became frustrated by what he felt was a lack of hands-on representation and decided to run for the state House of Representatives in 1974.

Mr. Gilmer initially lost by a razor-thin margin, his brother said. “Then two years later, he ran against the same incumbent and won by 600 votes.”

While a state representative, Mr. Gilmer relished learning — even reaching out to people not in his district to gain their perspective on issues.

“He seemed to understand this was really serious and important, and you were representing people, but it never went to his head,” Sikkema said. “He seemed pretty genuine about everything.”

In 2002, Kalamazoo County hired Mr. Gilmer to be its administrator despite objections that he didn't have a college degree. He retired in 2008.

In recent years, Mr. Gilmer served on the board for the Michigan League for Public Policy, which works to address poverty and boost economic opportunities.

“He just exudes common sense, practicality,” board chairman Charles Ballard said. “I’d call him a pragmatic moderate. He was looking to find ways to build bridges and make partnerships. He seemed like one of those people who could get along with anyone.”

Among other professionals, he was considered a “respected voice of reason,” said Gilda Jacobs, the group's CEO and a former legislator. “His service on our board was integral in protecting programs that helped working families in Michigan, and he leaves behind a strong legacy in his efforts to lift up all people in our state.”

Mr. Gilmer’s reach also touched Western Michigan University, where he received ahonorary doctorate. An endowed scholarship was created in his name to help students pursuing careers in public service, said Jeff Breneman, the school’s vice president of government relations.

In his spare time, Mr. Gilmer enjoyed traveling and golf. Despite declining health, the retiree strove to remain involved in community groups and causes he was devoted to, his brother said. “He stayed active as long as he could.”

Other survivors include his wife of 30 years, Lynn Weimeister; three children, Laura Norman, Steven and Jason; three grandchildren; another brother, Jim; two stepsisters, Susan Cornett and Diane Venditti; as well as several nieces and nephews. 

He was predeceased by his parents and a brother, Chuck. 

A visitation is planned for 4-8 p.m. Aug. 28 at the Langeland Family Funeral Homes, 3926 S. 9th St., Kalamazoo. 

Services are scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Aug. 29 at the Dalton Center recital hall on Western Michigan University's campus, 1026 Van De Giessen Road, Kalamazoo. A reception follows in the Miller Auditorium lobby.

Memorials may be made to Planned Parenthood of Michigan, P.O. Box 3673, Ann Arbor, MI 48106, or WMU Foundation - Donald Gilmer Endowed Scholarship, 1903 W. Michigan Avenue, Kalamazoo, MI 49008.