Governor Milliken’s Evergreen Legacy

By Dave Dempsey

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

When historians consider the late Governor William Milliken’s place among Michigan’s chief executives, they will note his leadership on behalf of the environment at a critical time, but they will acknowledge even more. In today’s climate of coarse, zero-sum politics, they will recognize his civility and refusal to demonize those who disagreed with him.

As the biographer of Milliken, I can attest that this approach was no pose or strategic calculation—it was inherent in his temperament and thus the trademark of his career. During scores of hours of interviews, he displayed no rancor or resentment. He reflected on his mistakes honestly and at times with self-deprecating humor. Along with his wife Helen, the First Lady who was a leader in her own right, he took harsh criticism and political gamesmanship in stride.  Like any successful politician, he had an ego, but his stayed within reasonable bounds. 

This approach contributed to his environmental accomplishments. Milliken did not need to be the source of an environmental reform to support it. Milestones like the Michigan Environmental Protection Act and the state’s successful bottle and can deposit law were initiated by others, but won his crucial endorsement. When he did originate a proposal, it was typically within the conservation tradition of Republican Theodore Roosevelt, an effort to defend and protect the state’s natural heritage for future generations.

One glimpse of the Millikens in his biography is particularly telling. Prompted by Helen, Milliken took an interest in the oil drilling controversy in the Pigeon River Country State Forest in northern Lower Michigan. They decided to visit the forest in a winter tour to be filmed for the Michigan Outdoors television show. Originally intended to be a ski tour, the trip became a hike when rain melted the snowpack. As the hikers moved down the trail, they stopped occasionally while the approximately 60-year-old Gene Little, carrying a huge TV camera, filmed them walking and talking for the outdoors program. Accompanying them, conservationist Dave Smethurst later told me:

“Pretty soon, Mrs. Milliken asks to borrow my backpack and is picking litter up off the trail. Those skiers left their cookie wrappers and the melted snow revealed their waste. We walk on, and on. Pretty soon Gene is huffing and puffing. We stop more often for him. I walk ahead with Ned and Mrs. Milliken and look behind. Gene is still slogging along, but the Governor is now carrying his TV camera…I made up my mind about the Millikens that day. Good people make good leaders.”

Milliken prided himself on moderation. Often, moderation is viewed as a weakness, a lack of strong political conviction. But with Milliken it was a fiercely held belief that a willingness to work with liberal and conservatives was the most fruitful way of fashioning public policy. Hence the subtitle of his biography: “Michigan’s Passionate Moderate.”

In his final State of the State message, Gov. Milliken cited Judge and judicial philosopher Learned Hand to define his own philosophy: “What is the spirit of moderation? It is the temper which does not press a partisan advantage to its bitter end, which can understand and will respect the other side, which feels a unity between all citizens—real and not the factitious product of propaganda—which recognizes their common fate and their common aspirations—in a word, which has faith in the sacredness of the individual.”

The historic progress Michigan made on environmental protection was one result of this approach. So was his reputation for civility–a self-renewing evergreen legacy, from which today’s politicians could benefit.

Here’s How to Participate in the August 6, 2:00 pm EDT, Memorial Service for Governor William G. Milliken at Interlochen Center for the Arts

The memorial service and celebration of Governor Milliken’s life will take place at 2:00 p.m. EDT on Thursday, August 6, at the 4,000-seat, open-air Kresge Auditorium at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, where he served on the Board of Trustees from 1983-1997. The gathering is free and open to the public. Speakers at the August 6 event include Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer; Bill Rustem, a senior policy advisor in both the Milliken and Snyder administrations; Capt. Arlan Brower, retired from the Michigan State Police; Chuck Stokes of WXYZ-TV; and journalist and longtime friend Jack Lessenberry. Those attending are encouraged to arrive early and be seated to help accommodate Governor Whitmer’s schedule.

Attendees are asked to register for the memorial service so that capacity can be monitored in an effort to plan for social distancing and other health and safety considerations. Please visit Eventbrite to register. Capacity will be limited and registration does not confirm a reservation. Attendees are asked to plan to honor public health safety measures including face coverings and adhering to physical distancing. 

The memorial will be broadcast live on IPR News Radio. Listen online or with a mobile device or on the radio to WICA-FM 91.5 Traverse City, WHBP-FM 90.1 Harbor Springs, or WLMN-FM 89.7 Manistee and other NPR affiliates in Michigan.

WTVS Detroit Public Television will offer a livestream of the event at

Read about FLOW’s Helen and William G. Milliken Fund For Love of Water, and learn about your opportunity to make a gift to extend the former First Family of Michigan’s legacy of equity and environmental protection.

Watch FLOW’s Video Testimonials Honoring Gov. William and Helen Milliken. Enjoy remembrances and reflections from Bill Milliken, Jr., Ann Rogers, Bill Rustem, and many others.

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