Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 17, 2012

Former governor, friends remember Helen


TRAVERSE CITY — An icon for thousands of women. A passionate environmentalist. A dear friend. Loving wife and mother.

Helen Milliken died at home early Friday with her husband, former Michigan Gov. William G. Milliken, and her son, Bill Milliken, Jr. at her side. Diagnosed with ovarian cancer in October 2011, she had been under treatment since.

"It's a great relief because it was a struggle for her," said Bill Milliken, Jr. who arrived from Ann Arbor Thursday to be with his mother. "She was at home, we cared for her at home, and she was comfortable.

"Hospice provided wonderful care for her and counseling for the family."

Community members and governmental leaders shared memories of Helen Milliken, a naturally private woman, who grew into her public role to influence environmental law, protect the state's most pristine lands, and help transform the role of women during her lifetime.

Author and environmentalist Dave Dempsey said he's grateful for the time he spent with Milliken while researching "William G. Milliken: Michigan's Passionate Moderate."

"The mantle of leadership was thrust upon her. She didn't want to be a public figure, even after her husband became governor," Dempsey said.

Milliken had a personal awakening of women's place in society thanks to her daughter's advocacy, Dempsey said.

"She hadn't reflected on it much before that. She had grown up in a sheltered family, a sheltered environment. But it all came together. Being the first lady, having a daughter who awoke her consciousness, and her own quiet principles. It all coincided," Dempsey said.

Marjorie "Beth" Goebel, 79, considers her long-time friend an "icon for thousands of women."

Milliken helped found the Michigan Women's Foundation, a nonprofit that empowers women and girls to become economically self-sufficient, she said.

"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"

Clare Mackey first met Milliken in East Lansing in 1979 when her husband, Cecil Mackey, began his tenure as Michigan State University president.

"We shared so many experiences as first ladies, trying to pursue our own interests," she said.

Milliken was earning a master's degree at the time and took a special interest in trees and flowers.

"A number of us enjoyed cross country skiing. It took three times as long when Helen was with us, because she could identify every tree by its bark."

A group of women met each month in a book club of sorts, but mostly to talk about women's issues. They called themselves the "brown bag" group and have reunited most every summer since those days in East Lansing, Mackey said.

"Four of us came to visit her just for the day last week. We just felt so strongly about our friendship and our kinship, we just had to go see her one more time. Each one went separately and had our farewell with Helen and talked over our good times. We were so close in so many ways."

Milliken also was in a Traverse City book club that liked to discuss women's issues. Among the members were Peg Kauffman and Betty Parker, who died this year.

"She was basically a very quiet person whose circumstances pushed her into a public position, which I think she filled extremely well," Kauffman said. "She had strong opinions and was very tactful about how she put them forth. She did it in an even handed manner and didn't make a lot of noise. She was always interested in discussion."

The Millikens were good friends of the Taylor family for decades. Dr. Terrie Taylor 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. "She remained intensely interested in national and international women's issues and cast an absentee ballot in the November election."

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm issued a statement today that praised Milliken for her role in women's rights and most importantly, as 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.

Calm and serene

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?"

As an experienced traveler, Milliken remained calm and serene in all kinds of situations, with one exception, Anderson 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 working with legislative members, the Resource Center was able to buy property at Grand Traverse Commons on Eleventh Street for its shelter and offices.

Dean and Cindy Robb are close friends of the Millikens and have been delivering pots of soup to the house. Robb remembers his first memory of Helen back in the late 1970s.

"I was in my office on Front Street and this woman came into my office with a petition collecting signatures for the Equal Rights Amendment. And here she was out on a cold, silly day collecting signatures for the ERA. From then on, I was a fan."

An environmental defender

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 Institute, said Milliken's involvement in the Hartman-Hammond effort was pivotal.

"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."

When the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy was a tiny, fledgling organization, Bill and Helen Milliken signed on as honorary co-chairs and helped raise money for the Pyatt Lake Reserve, said Glen Chown, executive director.

"That's how it all started and she's continued through our development," Chown said. "One of the great stories was how she and LouAnn Taylor and Virginia Sorenson, these three women, went on a picnic to this place called Seven Bridges in Kalkaska County on the Rapid River, this magical place with bridges. They discovered survey stakes everywhere in this sacred and beloved property. So over a picnic basket and a bottle of Chardonnay, they hatched a plan to save this property. Now it's one of the crown jewels of our protected lands in the region."

A memorial service is pending. Full obituary information will appear in Sunday's Record-Eagle.