William G. Milliken, the longest serving governor in Michigan’s storied history, died in October at the age of 97. One of the rare gifts of my life was knowing Bill and his wife Helen as friends and mentors. Both were terrifically helpful in getting our new northern Michigan land use policy group going in the 1990s. Helen was a board member. Bill was an active supporter. In 2000, when I stepped down as director of the group, the Michigan Land Use Institute, Bill wrote me a note of congratulation for a bringing important issues of growth, development, and environmental protection to public knowledge and action.
A gentleman and a statesman, Bill carried himself and produced for the public good in ways nearly completely lost in the United States. He saw the erosion in how we conducted our public affairs long before almost everybody else. And he worried about what it meant for the country’s ideals and values and ways of doing business. Every so often we would cross paths in Traverse City, where he was born, raised, and lived. Every time ours was a conversation of substance and a moment committed to memory.
I had the privilege of writing Bill’s obituary for the New York Times, one of the many assignments I’ve undertaken in a Times career that began in February 1982. Much of that article continues here:
In January 1969, days before he became governor — succeeding George Romney, who had joined President Richard M. Nixon’s cabinet — Mr. Millken delivered a speech to a joint legislative session that defined the personal values that would shape his long term in office. “It is my greatest hope that this administration will be known for its compassion, its idealism, its candor, and its toughness in the pursuit of public ends,” he said.
Mr. Milliken’s record of political achievements reflected that vision. It included investing in urban housing and education, defending auto industry jobs and profits in the wake of the 1973-1974 Arab oil embargo, strengthening higher education, and installing innovative environmental protections.
Trim, athletic and soft-spoken, Mr. Milliken always looked years younger than his age. Much of what he achieved in public policy was made possible by what his allies and opponents agreed was his uncommon graciousness and decency. His ability to inspire people to trust him enabled Mr. Milliken to build remarkable political bridges. He succeeded in convincing cities and suburbs, labor and management, business executives and environmentalists, and Republicans and Democrats that their interests coincided.
This was no small feat considering that Mr. Milliken’s term spanned 14 years, from 1969 until 1983, the longest in state history, and coincided with the deepest economic crisis and highest unemployment in Michigan since the Great Depression, the civil rights movement, Vietnam protests, and the consequences of old factories and industrial practices on the economy and the state’s natural resources.
His administration was also distinguished by his concern about the condition of Michigan’s deteriorating cities, especially Detroit, and by the commitment he made to healing racial wounds. He took office less than two years after a race riot in Detroit that claimed more than 40 lives. Mr. Milliken campaigned for affirmative action, named young African-Americans as top aides — among them Roy Levy Williams, who went to become the chairman of the N.A.A.C.P. — and recruited black leaders and residents as allies.Continue reading “Bill Milliken Was A Great Leader And A Good Friend”