Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 16, 2012

Leaders, friends remember Helen Milliken


— TRAVERSE CITY - Collected memories of community and governmental leaders on Helen Milliken’s death early today:

Helen Milliken friend Marjorie “Beth” Goebel, 79, speaking by phone from Grand Rapids called her an “icon for thousands of women.”  

Milliken was a founder of the Michigan Women’s Foundation, a nonprofit that helped women and girls become economically self-sufficient.

“And here I came on this board with all these high-powered women, and was accepted and treated so beautifully well. … As a result of that, and her thoughtfulness and caring, I found a voice that I didn’t know I had. And I kept that voice for all these many years.”

When Milliken gave public speeches, Goebel said, she spoke with a “wonderful, quiet passion that came through so beautifully. I’ve know her for a long time, and I loved her.”

Terrie Taylor of Traverse City remembered Milliken as a wonderful friend and role model.  

“We shared many Saturday mornings at the Sara Hardy Farmers’ Market. She loved her weekly conversations with the farmers and growers, and delighted in the seasonal succession of produce,” said Taylor, who works six months a year in Malawi researching cerebral malaria in children. “Her humor was infectious. She remained intensely interested in national and international women’s issues and cast an absentee ballot in the November election this year.”

Ann Rogers, a Traverse City activist, said she and Helen Milliken worked together to fight the Hartman-Hammond bridge bypass proposal that would have put a bridge connecting two key roads across the Boardman River.

“It would have been so detrimental to the river, and I remember, in particular, going on a walk with her on a beautiful afternoon.  She was just an inspiration for renewing our commitment to protecting that area. She had a way of pulling people in and giving them the strength to go on.

Hans Voss, executive director of the Michigan Land Use said Milliken’s involvement in the Hartman-Hammond effort was pivotal.

“She stepped forward early on. (She said) ‘We can do better than building a bridge through a beautiful, natural area.’ Her willingness to stand as a prominent leader for an alternative, in many regards, changed the debate. She put her integrity on the line, and said we could move traffic without harming this special, natural place,” Voss said. “She was an ardent advocate for protecting natural areas, and she did so with reason and care and humility.”

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm issued a statement today that praised Milliken for making the world a better place, from the environment to the arts.

“She had a heartfelt laugh and a quick sense of humor, and the courage to speak her mind even when she was a step ahead of her time. She was a leader when it came to women’s rights and most importantly, a devoted wife and mother. Dan and I loved and admired her, and our thoughts and prayers are with Gov. Milliken and his son Bill Jr. who have suffered a tremendous loss,” the statement said.

 Karen Anderson, a local columnist and commentator, recalled a trip she and Milliken took together to Nepal in 1990.

 “Part of it was a very rigorous trek in the Annapurna region — the mountains, west of Everest. And she was 67. Think of it! It was spectacular, life changing.  …  During that trip, Helen’s whole interest was in the lives of women. How is it for women here? Everywhere we went, that was her focus; it was such a passion of hers. “

As an experienced traveler, Milliken remained calm and serene in all kinds of situations, with one exception, Anderson said.

“I remember one charming thing,” she said. “We went across a rope bridge across a very wild river, and the rope bridge had a lot of missing slats, and it looked pretty flimsy.  And that was the first time I saw Helen hesitate. She was kind of apprehensive. And one of the sherpas came forward and held her hand, and she was smiling the whole way, but she really held onto his hand.”

Jo Bullis, executive director of the Women’s Resource Center, said Milliken served on the board from 1988 through much of the 1990s. Thanks to Milliken’s efforts working with the legislature and its members, officials with the emergency shelter and offices were able to buy property at Grand Traverse Commons on Eleventh Street. And women, in transition and in need of long-term shelter, have one more place to stay, Bullis said.

“With her fundraising help, we were able to purchase our first transition home in Benzie County, the Benzie Zonta House,” she said.