Flags lowered for Bill Milliken, Michigan's longest-serving governor

Chad Livengood and Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has ordered U.S. and Michigan flags on all public buildings and grounds throughout the state to be lowered to half-staff for 14 days — from Saturday through Nov. 1 — to honor each year former Gov. William "Bill" Milliken served in office. 

Milliken, Michigan’s longest-serving governor who helped define a generation of centrist politicians, died Friday in Traverse City, a family spokesman said. He was 97.

“Gov. Milliken was a true statesman who led our state with integrity and honor," said Whitmer, who called Milliken a family friend. "He had a unique ability to bring people from both sides of the aisle together for the betterment of Michigan. We are a stronger, safer, more sustainable state because of his leadership and dedication to the people who call it home."

Milliken began his service as an air combat soldier in the U.S. Army during World War II, earning a Purple Heart. He was elected to the state Senate in 1961 and served as the 52nd lieutenant governor until 1969. He became governor after George Romney resigned to join President Nixon’s Administration and was elected for three additional terms in office. He passed away at home in Traverse City at the age of 97.   

Milliken lapsed into a coma Tuesday, said family spokesman Jack Lessenberry. He died peacefully at the home he built 60 years ago in Traverse City, where he was in hospice care, Lessenberry said. 

Son William Milliken Jr.'s birthday was Monday, and he talked to the GOP former governor for the last time, the spokesman said.

Milliken was a moderate Republican who pursued an activist conservation and environmental agenda during his 14 years as governor from 1969 to 1983 before Michigan voters limited governors to serving two four-year terms. He also made high priorities of race relations and urban issues, and worked with Democrats.

Former Michigan Governor William Milliken.

"RIP to a fervent conservationist, a statesman, an honest and true gentleman," former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm said in a statement. "If only we had more like him in this moment of division and acrimony."

Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox also hailed Milliken's legacy.

"Bill Milliken deeply appreciated Michigan, leading our state with distinction for nearly a generation," Cox said in a statement. "His time as governor will be remembered for the kindness and civility he brought to his office."

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee issued a statement saying Milliken has "lost a great statesman."

"Compromise was never a dirty word for Governor Milliken," Kildee said. "Governor Milliken exemplified all that is good about serving in elected office."

The former two-time lieutenant governor helped persuade voters to adopt Michigan’s 10-cent bottle deposit law in 1976 and won legal limits on phosphates in laundry detergent that had polluted Lake Erie in the 1970s.

In 1979, Milliken signed the Wetlands Protection Act, which created stricter guidelines for controlling water runoff from farming fields.

His commitment resulted in the 2009 naming of the William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor in Detroit — in honor of his conservation efforts and work helping the city.  

Bill Rustem, who worked as a policy adviser for Milliken, said the former governor's legacy was "unparalleled in Michigan history." Rustem remembered a specific moment in Lansing when someone told Milliken an upcoming decision was bad politics.

"Stop," Milliken responded to the person, according to Rustem's memory. "Good policy is good politics."

Traverse City meets Detroit   

The native of Traverse City also was known for his strong relationship with fiery Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, a Democrat. 

Milliken helped Detroit survive financial problems in the 1970s by getting approved a $35-million-a-year state aid package — called the "equity package" — to institutions such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Zoo and the Detroit Public Library that helped serve all of Michigan. He also got legislative approval for the city to raise its income tax in 1981 during a recession.

When Young received a lifetime achievement award from the Detroit NAACP in 1995, he chose Milliken to introduce him.

Milliken was “the finest and fairest (governor) the state has had,” Young said in his autobiography.

By contrast, conservative critics argued the GOP governor allowed a major expansion of state government spending with little tax relief. During an early 1990s recession and budget crunch, Republican Gov. John Engler eliminated the Milliken-created state aid package to the Detroit cultural institutions.

Milliken ascended to the governor’s office in 1969 after then-Gov. George Romney resigned to become the housing and urban development secretary for then-President Richard Nixon. He went on to win four-year terms in 1970, 1974 and 1978 before leaving office in January 1983.

Before getting elected as Romney’s lieutenant governor in 1964, Milliken won a four-year term in 1960 to the state Senate, where both his father and grandfather had served. "He never lost an election," the family statement noted.

Frank Kelley, a Democrat who spent nearly four decades as Michigan's attorney general, said Milliken's gentle and kind approach to politics was a family characteristic.

Kelley, who  served as attorney general while Milliken was governor, said his death marked the passing of an era.

“We proved that we could get along and do those jobs without any rancor or dislike," Kelley said. "I consider him a dear friend and fine person.”

Life before politics

Milliken's rise in statewide politics was preceded by a storied career in the military and business.

Milliken’s studies at Yale University were interrupted by World War II in 1943 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He flew 50 combat missions as a B-24 waist gunner and was wounded over Vienna, Austria. He was awarded a Purple Heart, an Air Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters and a European Theater Ribbon with three battle stars, according to a biography published in the state’s 1973-74 Michigan Manual.

He was discharged on Sept. 29, 1945, "after narrowly escaping death on several occasions," according to Milliken's official state biography.

After finishing college, Milliken married Helen Wallbank and moved back to Traverse City. From 1947 to 1955, he served as president of the J.W. Milliken department stores in Cadillac, Manistee and Traverse City — a company founded by his grandfather. 

Gov. William Milliken throws the first pitch at the 1969 Opening Day game at Tiger Stadium.

Milliken’s work on conservation and environmental issues began in 1947 when then-Gov. Kim Sigler appointed him to the Michigan Waterways Commission, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

Post-gubernatorial career

After leaving office, Milliken served on the boards of the Chrysler Corp., Conrail and the Ford Foundation, according to a family statement. In addition, he promoted prison reform and shorter sentences for minor drug offenses.

In recent elections, Milliken distanced himself from more conservative leaders of the Michigan Republican Party and endorsed some Democratic candidates for statewide and national offices. In 2004, he backed then-U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, over incumbent GOP President George W. Bush of Texas. 

In 2006, Milliken supported Granholm in her re-election bid over Republican businessman Dick DeVos from the Grand Rapids area. And in 2014, Milliken sided with Democratic then-U.S. Rep. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township in his U.S. Senate victory over former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, a Grand Rapids-area Republican. 

“Governor Milliken’s proud record of bipartisan problem-solving, exemplary public service and love for the Great Lakes defined a Michigan era, and his legacy will continue to inspire Michiganders for generations to come," Peters said in a statement Friday night. 

Milliken also endorsed Democrat Mark Totten over incumbent GOP Attorney General Bill Schuette, who soundly defeated Totten in the November 2014 election.

But the former governor was willing in his later years to endorse Republicans who seemed to mesh better with his moderate sensibilities.

Milliken backed Republican Gov. Rick Snyder in 2010 and 2014. At times, Snyder was called a “Milliken Republican” for championing the expansion of Medicaid health insurance coverage for the poor and pursuing an agenda aimed at revitalizing Detroit and other urban areas dominated by Democrats.

“I have not always agreed with Gov. Snyder on every issue,” Milliken wrote in a 2014 endorsement letter. “But I believe on the major issues that affect Michigan’s future he has made tough decisions that have truly made Michigan a comeback state.”

In 2010, Milliken campaigned for Snyder in Detroit, where he was popular as governor and won nearly 40% of the vote in his last re-election in 1978.

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, saluted Milliken for his ability to work across the aisle.  

“Gov. Milliken was a friend, always. He encouraged me on many fronts and led a life with no regrets," Upton said in a statement. "His infectious smile charmed and disarmed all who knew him, and his bipartisan style served as a role model of days gone by and certainly needed today!” 

Rick Snyder with former Gov. William Milliken in Detroit in 2010.

The former governor is survived by his son, William Jr. His daughter, Elaine, died of cancer in 1993.

Milliken’s wife, Helen, died Nov. 16, 2012, at their Traverse City home after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Helen Milliken was a staunch supporter of women’s rights and environmental protection and remained more politically active than her husband after he left the political spotlight in 1983.

A memorial service will be held in May 2020 on a date that will be determined, Lessenberry said. Milliken's ashes will be interred next to those of his wife Helen and daughter Elaine in the Mackinac Island Cemetery, he said.

The Reynolds-Jonkhoff Funeral Home in Traverse City is handling funeral arrangements.

Instead of flowers, the family is suggesting contributions be made to the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy or the advocacy group For Love of Water (FLOW), Lessenberry said.