Traverse City Record-Eagle

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November 17, 2012

Milliken's sense of humor always present

Helen Milliken was one of the most wonderful people I have ever known. She was soft-spoken, intellectually superior, in every way, and just about the most trustworthy of human beings I have ever known. She was a gifted and devoted gardener, a fabulous cook, and had one of the best senses of humor of anyone anywhere. Of all of these attributes, I believe her sense of humor may have been the least known.

While I worked for Gov. William Milliken in the Capitol in Lansing for 14 years, Helen and I were confidants for 40 years, caught up in a public life, not known for other's confidences being kept.

We were special friends and felt comfortable making confidences to each other, knowing they were safe. We were blessed with that very special gift from God: senses of humor. Where others might complain or scoff at political machinations, disappointments, mess-ups, or sudden changes of plans, we managed to be largely good-natured and amused by it all.

So, mostly, we enjoyed the political life. I don't think either of us would have found the political life today at all palatable.

But we traveled together to hundreds of places, both inside and outside the United States, never missing a laugh, which kept us sane despite the unbearable work load and non-stop crises and complications.

I remember once when we were in the Dominican Republic on the governor's business regarding the Republic's sister-state relationship with Michigan. One day around lunch time, the governor was sitting by the pool going over papers for a speech he was giving later that afternoon.

Helen and I approached the pool, rather nicely dressed, strolled by the governor, and just kept walking along — right into the pool where we walked in and to the center bar and ordered a drink, sitting in water up to our necks. The governor witnessed this without a word from us. He was nonplussed. Fortunately, his good humor never failed him so we all laughed about this incident for many years.

Another time we were in Hollywood in an effort to convince executives there that Michigan was a great place to film movies. We were invited to a party at comedian Danny Thomas's house, a spectacular place high in the hills overlooking Hollywood with a deck that surrounded the outside of the house.

Then a group of us went out to dinner at Chasen's. Our crowd at dinner included Danny Thomas and his security guards, the governor and his security guards, Phyllis Maguire, singer and member of the successful Maguire Sisters and her security guards, and Gov. Jerry Brown of California and his security guards.

Helen and I whispered that we hoped no one in the restaurant dropped and broke a dish by mistake or we'd be trapped in the resultant cross-fire. And we noted that perhaps having more female political leaders might put a stop to such foolishness as they'd be so less likely to pack heat.

No one loved a good time more than Helen. With all of her responsibilities and mine, we always found things to be tickled about. With our great good friend Elly Peterson, the first woman State Chairman of the Republican Party in any state, we found mischief in the darndest places, no matter the press of business at hand.

We'd always find a theater to go to after hours in Washington, New York or Chicago and so looked forward to finding the time. The things we fought for in Michigan and around the country brought us a great sense of satisfaction and pride.

We felt better for the vigorous fights, but we were always mindful of the joy we brought to those who followed us. We changed a lot about the world, but we also had moments when we laughed so hard that when we returned to our hotel, we'd fall on the floor in gales of laughter.

I look back on those years with Helen and remember with such satisfaction and gratitude at all that we shared, the chances we took, and the just plain fun we always had.

I admired Helen for all of the contributions she made in all her endeavors, the quiet way she always stepped aside when accolades were given, the pleasure she found in all of our endeavors.

She was the dearest friend that it is possible to have.

On cold winter mornings, she'd show up at my door with some delicious soup she had just made; we loved going to movies in the middle of day and pigging out on popcorn; we loved sitting by her fireplace or mine to sort out personal problems or triumphs; we loved walking around the Civic Center track in all weather, walking our dogs and hashing over personal concerns

I remembered today an occasion we once shared in Arizona. We went out to the motel pool around midnight one night with a million stars shining across that vast and indescribable sky. We wanted to sit in the pool and watch the stars from horizon to horizon, but the pool was closed and locked up for the night.

Not about to give up on our plans, we helped boost each other over the fence, got into the pool and gloried at the wondrous silence — two friends so amazed by that spectacular show in the night sky.

I will look up there often and remember her. I loved her.

Traverse City resident Joyce Braithwaite served as Gov. William G. Milliken's executive assistant for political affairs for all l4 years of his administration. She also worked for state Republican Chair Elly Peterson as her administrative assistant and served in Gov. Jennifer Granholm's administration on her Executive Clemency Advisory. She was married to the late Jim Brickley, Gov. Milliken's lieutenant governor and Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.

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