Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 16, 2012

George Weeks: Milliken a champion of causes

Syndicated columnist

— Helen Milliken, Michigan’s longest-serving first lady, was a low-key but highly effective advocate of causes that will long serve the state and its citizens, and some issues that remain in public debate.

During the administration of 1969-82 Gov. William G. Milliken, she was, as observed by former first lady Paula Blanchard, “a strong environmentalist, publicly supporting legislation to support throwaway bottles and to limit oil drilling in the Pigeon River Country State Forest.

“She was an advocate for women’s rights, serving as a national spokeswoman for the Equal Rights Amendment and as a delegate to the International Women’s Year Conference.” She also was a pro-choice supporter on the abortion issue.

Among her other causes, she crusaded against proliferation of billboards, co-founded the Artrain museum, and served on boards of the Michigan Land Use Institute and the Women’s Resource Center in Traverse City.

Long ago, as a functionary in the Milliken administration, I was struck by how she happened to be — by her own conventions — a spear carrier for some of the same issues that were touted by presidential first ladies she admired: Eleanor Roosevelt on social issues, help for the less fortunate and expanding the role of women in public life; Lady Bird Johnson on landscape beautification; Betty Ford on the ERA and other women’s issues.

During the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit, there was a picture in The Detroit News of Helen Milliken framed by banners leading a pro-ERA rally outside Cobo Hall.

Paula Blanchard said it well about opportunities of first ladies: “I had the privilege and advantage of a very valuable tool: derivative power. In other words, I derived power from my husband’s position.”

Betty Ford called herself as “an ordinary woman who was called onstage.”

As Helen Milliken said in Willah Weddon’s 1977 First Ladies of Michigan book: “My beliefs are not particularly unique. It’s just that I’m now in a position to do something about them.”

She did more than something about them.

Long before Lady Bird Johnson’s beautification efforts in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere, Helen Milliken was involved in such efforts in her native Denver and then during her life with Bill Milliken in Traverse City.

Her love of flowers and gardening sprang from the hobby of her father, Denver attorney Stanley T. Wallbank, who had a garden with more than 100 iris varieties.

She was a member of the garden club in Traverse City for more than four decades and studied landscape design at Michigan State University during the years her husband was lieutenant governor.

She was a patient woman, as political wives must be, and was patient before political life. 

The Millikens were married on the sixth try for a wedding date. It was rescheduled repeatedly because of changes in the mustering-out timetable of World War II Staff Sgt. Bill Milliken, who flew 50 combat missions as a B-24 waist-gunner.

He proposed to her while they were dancing in Denver, but got no commitment. Again, while dancing, she suggested he try again; he did, and the deal was closed, pending Uncle Sam’s timetable.

While waiting and constantly changing the dates for the wedding, she spent the summer working as a Red Cross nurse’s aide at Denver’s Buckley Field Hospital.

For Bill’s Helen, it was public service from beginning to end.