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Years ago, I was having dinner at a Traverse City hotel with Bill Milliken, the longest-serving governor in Michigan history, and his wife Helen, a well-known feminist in her own right.

We were talking about World War II. I knew that Milliken had been a gunner on a B-24 bomber in 1944, and survived 50 tough missions against dangerous targets like the Ploiesti oil fields in Romania. Not many men survived that many missions.

Though he never made much of it, I knew he had been an authentic war hero who had been repeatedly wounded and had survived crash-landings and bailouts. Then, he told me an astonishing story. Once, a piece of flak tore open a crewman’s chest and to prevent the man from bleeding to death, he stuck his hand in the hole. Those planes were not heated, it was many degrees below zero, and the future governor’s hand froze solid in the blood.

But he saved his crewmate’s life. When they landed, Milliken’s frozen hand hurt like something worse than the dickens, and he engaged in some mild cursing while he was rubbing it.

“And sure enough, some officer on the ground reprimanded me and wrote me up for swearing,” he said, chuckling.

I told him that while I had read about his military career, I had never heard that story. Helen Milliken looked at her husband (they had then been married about 60 years) and said, “Neither did I, 'till about a month ago.”

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That was the kind of man Bill Milliken was. 

Milliken died in his Traverse City home on Friday. He was 97.

You can argue about his policies. Some of his fellow Republicans, even back in the 1970s, thought he was far too liberal. They didn’t like his alliance with Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, and called him “the ghetto governor", and not only behind his back.

But he did what he thought was right. Few dispute that when it came to the environment, he was the greatest governor in Michigan’s history. He strongly supported the referendum that led to mandatory deposits on bottles and cans.

He fervently fought to protect the Great Lakes as governor, successfully getting strict limits enacted on phosphates, and went on to head the Center for the Great Lakes after he left office.

He knew his administration moved too slowly at first in dealing with the PBB poisoned cattle feed crisis in 1975, and regretted it; typically, he did not pin most of the blame on officials in his agriculture department who dragged their feet.

Milliken could also admit mistakes, and deeply regretted signing legislation that sought to end the drug crisis by inflicting mandatory life sentences on those convicted in having 650 grams (less than a pound and a half) of heroin or cocaine.

In later years, he became more and more distant from a Republican Party that veered increasingly to the right on social issues. He sometimes endorsed Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, something that caused the Traverse City GOP to vote to essentially expel him in August, 2016.

Coincidentally, I saw him the next morning and wondered how he was taking it. He found it … funny. It was as if a bunch of sparrows had denounced an eagle.

Milliken was never tempted to leave the Republican Party. Some of his critics forgot that he was once an extremely successful businessman who expanded the family department store chain after his father died when he was barely 30. In later years, he happily endorsed candidates like John McCain in 2000 and Gov. Rick Snyder.

He was, regardless of your politics, a man of integrity. And today’s Republicans ought to remember two things about him.  When he was in office, the parties worked together, and things got done. 

William Milliken also never lost an election, though he ran for governor each time in what were otherwise Democratic years. 

We may never see his like again.

Jack Lessenberry is a former national editor of the Detroit News.

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