TRAVERSE CITY — Joyce Braithwaite-Brickley, a close friend and confidant of late, former Michigan first lady Helen Milliken, called stepping into a role that lacks a public definition a "thorny chore."
Michigan's Constitution defines the duties and responsibilities of the state's governor, but it doesn't say anything about being a governor's wife.
"It's the job of the so-called first lady which can be vexing," said Braithwaite-Brickley, also a longtime adviser to Helen's husband, former Gov. William Milliken.
But Braithwaite-Brickley's words and the words of other speakers at a memorial service Monday left little doubt that Helen Milliken, through her activism and devotion to causes in which she passionately believed, surpassed any possible definition of "first lady."
"The truth is we all hope our lives will make a difference, and Helen Milliken's certainly did in so many ways," Braithwaite-Brickley said. "Less anyone thinks we are talking about Mother Teresa here, Helen was the first to know her faults and failures, but I believe she came closer to being perfection than anyone I've personally known."
About 400 people gathered Monday at Northwestern Michigan College to pay homage to the life and work of Helen Milliken, who died in November at the age of 89.
Milliken, a native of Colorado and longtime Traverse City resident, served as Michigan's first lady from 1969 to 1983. Her husband still resides on Old Mission Peninsula.
Helen's son Bill Milliken Jr., Gov. Rick Snyder and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow spoke at the ceremony and shared their thoughts on Milliken as a mother, a friend, a leader and a mentor, and about how her legacy lives on today.
Bill Milliken Jr. said he knew a Helen Milliken who told him to sit up straight, eat his broccoli and practice his cornet.
"An awfully good mother to grow up under," he said.
Bill Milliken Jr. also recounted how Helen changed the lives of thousands of girls after asking state park officials in 1973 why Girl Scouts could not serve in the Honor Guard program at the Mackinac Island State Park, just as the Boy Scouts had since 1929.
Milliken pressed officials on the issues and — possibly with some gubernatorial assistance, Bill Milliken Jr. said — the policy was changed the following year, a fact of which Helen Milliken was immensely proud.
Helen Milliken's broader legacy includes her devotion to arts and culture, and protecting the environment, Snyder said. Those issues continue to receive attention in Michigan today.
"I'm here today on behalf of all Michiganders to say 'Thank you, Helen,'" Snyder said.
Stabenow was unable to attend the ceremony in person, but in a recorded video message called Helen a personal role model as both a woman and a public servant.
Stabenow spoke extensively in the message about the part Helen Milliken played in the women's rights movement. Her life reflected that time of change, and women today continue to benefit from "the light of Helen Milliken," Stabenow said.
Braithwaite-Brickley mentioned Helen Milliken's public devotion to monumental tasks like promoting the Equal Rights Amendment, clearing Michigan's roads of discarded cans and bottles, and aiding victims of domestic violence.
But Braithwaite-Brickley also told personal stories about her friendship with Helen, who she said was happiest while kneeling in her garden, surrounded by her plants and blossoms.
One story involved a cold winter night when Braithwaite-Brickley's terrier Sam broke free from her leash and dashed off into the snowy woods as darkness approached.
Within five minutes Helen was outside with Braithwaite-Brickley looking for the dog. They eventually found her safe and sound.
"This story only tells us that for dear Helen no task was too large, and no task was too small," Braithwaite-Brickley said.
"I find the world so much less interesting without Helen," she said. "I look up at the sky so often now and remember her. I loved her."