Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 18, 2012

Editorial: Helen Milliken lived, lent and led


---- — What a life.

What a legacy.

What a loss.

Helen Milliken's death early Friday at age 89 prompted an outpouring of praise, love and fond remembrances from the former Michigan First Lady's friends and colleagues.

Mrs. Milliken's incredible life and astounding works very much came into focus as the anecdotes rolled in, and must be quite illuminating for the generations of northern Michigan residents who came of age after she and her husband, Gov. William G. Milliken, left Lansing in the early 1980s for their home on Old Mission Peninsula.

Mrs. Milliken parlayed what she learned from a nearly two-decade stint in the state capitol to a "retirement" chock-full of social responsibility and activism for her near-and-dear causes. She embraced environmentalism — how could anyone with a conscience who lives in this region not fight tooth-and-nail to protect our land and waters? — and she literally walked the walk in a protracted struggle to help American women obtain equal rights.

Mrs. Milliken and her husband unapologetically embraced a pro-choice stance on abortion, adamant in their belief that individual women — not men, not politicians, not organized religious or special interest groups — deserved the right to decide fundamental reproductive health questions.

Her stances demanded courage, and she found herself the target of many venomous personal attacks, but Mrs. Milliken lived a life of what one former colleague termed "grace and guts."

She dedicated herself to the arts and, significantly, was deeply committed to offering hope to the less fortunate, none more so than battered and abused women and their children. She gave her time, money and name to the Women's Resource Center in Traverse City, truly a cause worthy of her efforts.

It's impossible to ignore the symbolism of Mrs. Milliken's departure from this world; in many ways she and her husband represented a far more genteel approach to life, particularly political life. They were proud Republicans, but Republicans from a different era, when many in the party embraced both fiscal conservatism and a progressive approach to social issues. Those are bygone days, and in recent years many in their party derided — or worse — the Millikens for their political and social stances.

But Mrs. Milliken was comfortable in her own skin. She knew true leadership invites attack, and her strength and vision made the Grand Traverse region a better place. Already, she is missed.