Traverse City Record-Eagle


November 16, 2012

Helen Milliken: 'An inspiration'

Former first lady known for her leadership, commitment to women's rights, environment

TRAVERSE CITY - Michigan’s longest-serving First Lady Helen Milliken, 89, died today at her home in Traverse City with her husband, former Michigan Gov. William G. Milliken, and son by her side.

Helen Milliken was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in October 2011 and had been under treatment since.

“It was a great relief because it was a struggle for her,” said her son, Bill Milliken, Jr., who drove to Traverse City from Ann Arbor on Thursday to join his father, William G. Milliken, at his mother’s side “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.”

Born and raised in Colorado, Helen Milliken moved to Traverse City with her husband after his graduation from Yale in 1946. The two met in 1943 when he was a young U.S. Army Air Corps B-24 waist-gunner in training at Denver’s Lowry Field. She had just finished her freshman year at Smith College in Massachusetts and was home on summer vacation.

A Traverse City native, William Milliken was first elected to state office in 1960 when he ran for state Senate. He served as lieutenant governor under George Romney from 1965 through 1969, when Romney resigned to become Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C. After succeeding Romney as governor, he was reelected twice until deciding not to seek a fourth term in 1982.

At his side, Helen Milliken emerged as a vigorous spokeswoman for the Equal Rights Amendment and women’s rights.

In a 1988 interview, she recalled realizing that she needed to learn more about the ERA after it had passed in 1972 and a reporter asked her for her view on it.

“The more I became aware of its historical import, the more I saw its importance and related it to me personally,” she said. “Now, when I see other women coming to this understanding later in their lives, I remind myself that no one was born to it, no one understands it in the beginning.

“Also in the early 1970s, the issue of abortion and a woman’s right to control her own body was being illuminated. My husband and I had long felt strongly pro-choice. So there in my first few years as a governor’s wife, the issues of pro-choice, the Equal Rights Amendment and my own personal growth and readiness coalesced.”

 Helen Milliken also was an avid environmentalist who 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.

The Millikens moved to Traverse City full-time after leaving the governor’s office. In northern Michigan, Helen Milliken became recognized for her support for survivors of domestic violence. She was a longtime member of the Grand Traverse Area Women’s Resource Center. Its “Helen’s House” 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, farmers markets, and environmental and land policy nonprofits such as the Michigan Land Use Institute.

Traverse City activist Ann Rogers 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.

“I remember, in particular, going on a walk with her on a beautiful afternoon,” Rogers said. “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.”

Milliken also served on the board of the Michigan Land Use Institute, the Nature Conservancy, Dennos Museum and Planned Parenthood. 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.

“Talking about an issue, striking a chord in others and awakening them to all that they are and all that they can be … this is what is important to me,” Milliken said in that 1988 interview, “and will be all the days of my life.”

She is survived by her husband; her son, Bill, Jr., of Ann Arbor; and her sister, Elaine Jackson, of Denver. She was preceded in death by her daughter, Elaine, in 1993, and her parents, Stanley and Nellie Wallbank.

Reynolds-Jonkhoff Funeral Home in Traverse City will handle arrangements.

A memorial service will be held at a date to be determined, likely after the first of the year, Bill Milliken Jr. said.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions be made to Helen’s House, c/o Women’s Resource Center (, 720 South Elmwood, Traverse City, MI 49684; or Michigan Land Use Institute (, 148 East Front, Traverse City, MI 49684.

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