Opinion: Late Gov. William Milliken changed me and Michigan for the better

Jim Phelps

There is a memorial to honor former Gov. William G. Milliken in Interlochen Thursday afternoon. He was Michigan’s longest-serving governor.

But Bill Milliken’s greatness was not in his years of service, but in his character.

Here are some illustrative stories.

Governor Milliken would prepare for press conferences by assembling staff members before going to the interview room. It was our responsibility to anticipate questions and suggest answers. There would be a discussion as to the possible answers and he would then recite an answer in his own words to see how it would sound. Then he would ask, “Is this factually correct?” That was important to him. 

More:Former Gov. Milliken remembered at Interlochen

The Democrats wanted an amendment to the constitution to allow a graduated income tax on the ballot in exchange for their support for his education finance package. Several of us offered suggestions as to a possible reply. My suggestion was out of step with the others, more direct and less “political.” I remember his comment to me: “Jim, I am sorry, I cannot use your idea.” Can you imagine a governor apologizing to a staff member for not using a suggestion? That is the kind of guy Milliken was.

Bill Milliken’s greatness was not in his years of service, but in his character, Phelps writes.

He went out to face the press; sure enough, the question was asked. Much to my amazement, he did not give the answer he rehearsed. Instead he gave mine, almost word for word. When it came down to crunch time, he was more comfortable giving a straightforward, direct answer rather than one that would have appeared to be just another political line. 

I had been with the governor for only a short time, and it was the first time I had gone to Mackinac Island for a staff meeting. At first, I thought it was going to be “party time.” It wasn’t. After working all day, we were asked to reconvene for dinner. There we were, standing out front waiting for the governor and Mrs. Milliken to arrive. They arrived in style. There was the governor in white pants and a blue blazer with Mrs. Milliken in a long dress on the back of a tandem bike. 

Another time, we were coming back from Oakland County late at night. The governor looked tired — he had just returned from a trip to Russia. Usually, he would sit in the front seat with the trooper and I would sit in the back. But that night the governor sat in the back with me and told me all about his trip. 

What I remember most is when he told me about the night he could not sleep. He decided to take a walk outside his Moscow hotel. According to Governor Milliken: “I went down to the lobby and started to walk out the front door when two stern-looking men came up to me and told me that I could not leave the hotel. I turned and walked out anyway. They did, however, follow me just a few steps behind. After a while I returned, but never did hear anything about it afterwards. They were not going to treat me like that or intimidate me either.” 

A year or so after I left the governor’s office, I watched a TV program where citizens had the opportunity to ask the governor questions. Then came a question about education. The governor paused and thought for a second. Then came a smooth flow of words, as if he was reading from a script. I recognized those words, they were mine. I had written them in a speech years before. Yes, I was proud. Tears came to my eyes. Tears return as I write this.

But what strikes me most was the ability of this incredible man who really cared about what he said and what he did. In this example, I happened to come up with an idea that he thought important enough to remember. 

Reader's Digest had a regular column called “The Most Unforgettable Person I Ever Met.” Well, I had the distinct honor and privilege to have worked for the “Most Remarkable Man I Have Ever Met.” Governor Milliken has had a profound impact on my life.

Jim Phelps started with Gov. William Milliken in 1969 and was with him for eight years as several education reforms were accomplished. Phelps then served as deputy superintendent in the Michigan Department of Education.