Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 17, 2012

'Grace and guts’: Helen Milliken wore many hats

By LORAINE ANDERSON
landerson@record-eagle.com

TRAVERSE CITY — Michigan's longest serving First Lady, Helen Milliken wore many hats during her 89 years of living that ended with her death early Friday:

Mother, governor's wife, environmentalist, women's rights activist, world traveler and arts supporter with a love for gardening and landscape architecture.

Born and raised in Colorado, she moved to Traverse City with her husband, William G. Milliken, after his graduation from Yale in 1946.

Known statewide as a vigorous spokeswoman for the Equal Rights Amendment and women's rights, Helen Milliken also was an avid environmentalist. She advocated for billboard control, the bottle deposit law and a restriction on oil drilling in the Pigeon River State Forest during her husband's 14 years as governor (1969-1983).

"She's the best example of grace and guts I've ever met," said Lana Pollack, who was a state senator serving around the end of Gov. Milliken's final term and kept in touch with Helen Milliken over the years. "She was an inspiration, a role model and an important woman in American history."

In northern Michigan, she is recognized for her support for survivors of domestic violence. "Helen's House," the Grand Traverse Area Women's Resource Center's shelter home for victims of spouse and child abuse is named for her.

Her local environmental advocacy includes support for area nature and land conservancies, farm markets and environmental and land policy nonprofits such as Michigan Land Use Institute.

She served on the board of the Michigan Land Use Institute, the Nature Conservancy, Dennos Museum and Planned Parenthood. She was a longtime member of the area Women's Resource Center.

A long-time supporter of the Michigan Council for the Arts, she was honorary chairwoman of the Michigan Artrain, the nation's only touring art museum in a train. It launched its first trip from Traverse City in 1971 and soon after began nationwide tours.

The studio car was named "The Helen W. Milliken Studio" in 1983. By then, it had visited many Michigan cities and more than 200 communities in 23 states.

Early life

Helen was born in 1922, the second of four children, to Stanley Wallbank and Nellie Sillik Wallbank. She attributed her lifelong love for gardening to her father, a prominent Denver attorney.

She attended a private girl's school in Denver and was an outstanding student and athlete. After high school, she enrolled at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

Northampton was only 80 miles away from Yale, but she met her future husband in 1943 in Colorado while home on summer break from her freshman year.

At the time, Milliken was a young U.S. Army Air Corps B-24 waist-gunner in training at aerial gunnery school at Denver's Lowry Field.

They married in October 1945 after rescheduling their wedding six times because of schedule changes in Milliken's mustering out date. They skipped the honeymoon and went directly to Yale where Bill finished his senior year.

"We lived in a one-room apartment with a stove next to the bed," Helen said in an interview for the 1988 commemorative book, "The Milliken Years: A Pictorial Reflection," written by Milliken's executive assistant Joyce Braithwaite and George Weeks, his press secretary and chief of staff. Their first child, William Jr., was born Oct. 14, 1946, and their daughter, Elaine, on June 6, 1948.

Both Millikens credited their daughter for increasing their awareness of women's rights.

Elaine did her undergraduate work at Smith College and then enrolled at the University of Michigan Law School, determined to reform laws that discriminated against women. She helped redraft state laws to provide stronger punishments for offenders and more protection for women during rape prosecutions.

Helen joined the National Organization for Women in 1976.

Elaine became public defender in Detroit that year and later was a consultant in Vermont until 1993, when she died of cancer at age 45.

Political years

Milliken was first elected to state office in 1960 when he successfully ran for the state Senate. He served as lieutenant governor under George Romney from 1965 though 1969, when Romney resigned to become Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C.

First Lady Helen Milliken initially found public speaking difficult but did it at first because she cared about the environment.

"My beliefs are not particularly unique," she once told a reporter during her early years of the Milliken tenure. "It's just that I'm now in a position to do something about them and to help in my husband's efforts to achieve a better quality of life for all citizens."

By the time of her husband's second campaign, she had come into her own, saying she would campaign on the issues that concerned her most: environmental cleanup, transportation, arts and women's rights.

Biographer David Dempsey, author of "William G. Milliken: A Passionate Conservative" published in 2007, said Helen Milliken was part of an emerging group of governors' wives in the 1970s who believed it was their right and responsibility to address important issues beyond the safety zone of art and beautification.

"Perhaps the most remarkable fact about her advocacy was the personal distance she had traveled in terms of consciousness and forthrightness," Dempsey wrote.

Her education in women's rights began in the early 1970s, when a reporter asked what she thought about the Equal Rights Amendment, newly passed by Congress and headed down the thorny path of ratification by 38 states.

She had a "deer in the headlights reaction," she told the audience in a 2006 speech hosted by the Women's History Project of Northwest Michigan.

At the time she was a third-year student of landscape architecture at Michigan State University.

She called Elaine.

Feminism

Thus began her "immersion in women's history," which she called "the second great education of my life."

"Yes, I became a feminist," she told the Women's History Project members. "If you look up that word in the dictionary it may surprise you. It is defined as 'someone interested in the social, political and economic condition of women.' It says nothing about bra-burning."

In 1975, just a year after China opened its doors to the West, she traveled to China with the American Women for International Understanding.

In 1977, she was a delegate to the International Women's year conference in Houston.

In October 1982, she underwent surgery for breast cancer and 19 days later headed a state delegation on an official trip to China.

The following year she was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame.

"Independent, committed, and principled, Helen Milliken never sought, but never shrank from controversy," the Hall of Fame citation said. "When her commitment to equality conflicted with her political loyalties, she clearly chose the former. Her choice, her service, and her spirit have enriched the lives of countless Michigan citizens."

Her other travels included a 1985 trip to Kenya to the U.N. International Women's Conference in Nairobi. By 1992, she had also been to Indian, Nepal, Indonesia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Chili, Argentina and Brazil.

A highlight of her women's rights advocacy was participating with her daughter in 1980 national march in Washington, D.C., she said. It failed to gain ratification before its June 30, 1982 deadline, but is re-introduced in Congress every year.

"It's time will come," she said in 2006.