Longest serving Michigan governor remembered as leader 'who deeply cared'

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News

Interlochen — Michigan's longest-serving governor William "Bill" Milliken was honored Thursday as a "kind and tolerant" leader committed to leaving the state better than he found it.

Bill Rustem, a former aide to late Michigan Governor William Milliken, speaks during a memorial service at the Interlochen Center for the Arts.

Milliken, an air combat soldier in the U.S. Army during World War II, died at his home in Grand Traverse Bay Oct. 18, 2019. He was 97.

The moderate Republican was honored under sunny skies by several hundred during a Thursday memorial at the Kresge Auditorium at the Interlochen Center for the Arts. The site was selected to allow for physical distancing during the coronavirus pandemic and as a nod to Milliken's support for the arts. He was a member of the Interlochen Board of Trustees from 1983-97.

"Those who really knew William Milliken the governor admired him, respected him and most importantly, loved him dearly," said Bill Rustem, a former Milliken adviser who got his start as an intern in Milliken's office 50 years ago. "He had a strong sense of what was right and what was wrong. And no one questioned his character."

William Milliken, Jr, left, son of late Michigan Governor William Milliken, speaks with Richard Whitmer, center, father of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, right, prior to a memorial service  today at the Interlochen Center for the Arts.

Family had initially put off the memorial for the state's 44th governor, which was further delayed later due to COVID-19.

Other speakers included Milliken's son, Bill Milliken Jr.; Gov. Gretchen Whitmer; friend Jack Lessenberry; retired Michigan State Police Capt. Arlyn Brower; and WXYZ-TV producer Chuck Stokes. 

Milliken 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.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer waits to speak at the memorial for the late Gov. William Milliken.

He served 14 years from 1969 to 1983. 

Whitmer said she didn't know Milliken during his term in office, but his leadership was always a central part of her life. Her father, she noted, worked for Milliken when she was born. 

Milliken worked across the aisle, she said, alongside a Democratic legislature and his commitment never wavered.

“I think that because there are people like him at the very top levels, really trying to bring people together, I’m hopeful as a nation we can get back to that,” she said. 

Milliken's agenda included conservation and environmental priorities, as well as race relations and urban issues.

"He deeply cared about the people he served and he deeply cared about the people who served with him," Brower told the crowd. 

 After the ceremony, guests were given a white pine seedling to plant in Milliken’s memory.

John L. Russell is s writer and photojournalist from Traverse City.