Former Michigan governor William Milliken passed away in October but is remembered for his significant and direct impact on the Jewish community.
Michigan’s longest serving governor (1969-1983), William Milliken, passed away on Oct. 18, 2019. He was 97.
Because there are now term limits for Michigan governors, it is unlikely that his record will ever be surpassed. Beyond longevity in office, which is a pretty fine feat of popularity, Milliken represented a rare breed of politician. He was one of the last moderate executives who would eagerly work with members of the opposition to build coalitions for legislation that benefited all Michiganders.
I can tell you that having worked with Milliken on his archives at the Bentley Historical Library, he was a gracious and kind individual.
Proof of Milliken’s power in building relationships is everywhere. He worked well with Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, who was considered a divisive figure in his day. Both Milliken and Young fiercely defended the city and its importance to the state of Michigan.
On Oct. 14, there was a celebration at the University of Michigan in honor of Congressman Sander Levin placing his papers at the Bentley Library. During the event, Levin told the audience about his tough, but losing, campaign for governor against Milliken in 1974. Indeed, in an article in the April 12, 1974, issue of the JN, Levin blamed the governor for rising taxes and his ties to President Richard Nixon. Yet, Levin said, after the campaign, he and Milliken became lifelong friends.
The William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History holds a wealth of information on Milliken’s work. The reports and articles demonstrate he had a close relationship with Michigan’s Jewish community as well.
Milliken was actively involved in Jewish community affairs. For example, a report in the Oct. 31, 1969, JN cites his attendance at a groundbreaking for a 15-story senior citizen housing development in Oak Park sponsored by the Jewish Welfare Federation (now the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit). At the other end of the state, Milliken attended the 80th birthday party in Marquette for banker Samuel M. Cohodas in 1975. He was also honored by Hebrew University and was named an honorary chair of its Michigan chapter in 1977. An article in the Dec. 5, 1975, issue of the JN had a photo of the governor wearing his “Zionism is a Badge of Honor” pin.
Milliken’s legislative accomplishments were many, but two stand out from the pages of the JN. One was his deep concern for the environment. In 1977, Milliken declared November to be Michigan Energy Month and asked all citizens to do their best to conserve Michigan’s energy resources. As he stated: “This is the only Michigan we get.”
Perhaps one act of his that directly affected the state’s Jewish community occurred in 1981 when Milliken issued a proclamation declaring April 26-May 3 as “Days of Remembrance” for the victims of the Holocaust.
Milliken also had another significant and direct impact on Michigan’s Jewish community; he appointed numerous Jews to important state offices. For one example, in 2008, retiring Oakland County Probate Judge Barry Grant was asked the question: Who is your hero? Without hesitation, Grant said Bill Milliken. “It took a lot of courage to appoint a Jewish probate judge in Oakland.” Grant was the first.
To say the least, many Michigan and Detroit Jews benefited from Milliken’s relationship with the Jewish community, and many consider him a friend and mentor. Even those, like Sander Levin and Coleman Young, who were on the opposite of the aisle, sang and sing the praises of Gov. William Milliken.
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.