Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 4, 2013

Helen Milliken’s influence recalled

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Helen Milliken’s battles still aren’t finished, an environmentalist pointed out on the day hundreds gathered to remember the former Michigan first lady’s legacy.

A proposed Hartman-Hammond bypass around Traverse City is back on the Grand Traverse County board agenda. In February 2000, Helen Milliken stood on the frigid bank of the Boardman River to speak against the plan.

“It was 5 degrees out with deep snow,” said Hans Voss, executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. “We said, ‘Helen! Are you sure you want to do this?’ She didn’t flinch a second. She made a speech of a lifetime.”

Those she touched during Gov. William Milliken’s 1969-83 tenure and beyond remembered Helen Milliken in glowing terms on Monday. She advocated for many issues, including the Equal Rights Amendment, Art Train, billboard control, and a restriction on oil drilling in the Pigeon River State Forest.

Kathleen Glynn, interviewed before the memorial, said Helen’s views on women’s rights inspired her to start an underground, feminist newspaper in the 1970s. Glynn later produced her husband Michael Moore’s documentary, “Bowling for Columbine.”

“When I finally did get to meet her, I told her, ‘You don’t know what you meant to me,’” she said.

Bill Rustem, a key Milliken staffer, said Helen never worried that her activism would somehow jeopardize her husband’s career.

“She had great political instincts and knew just how far to push the envelope. She could have run for office,” he said.

In fact, Democrat Howard Wolpe asked her to run as his lieutenant governor in 1994. Helen “was too smart” to take him up on the offer, Rustem said.

Jennifer Milliken Rubiello, 22, said she grew up listening to her great-aunt Helen talk about how she overcame obstacles as a woman.

“I can do the things I do because of Helen,” said Rubiello, who works for an environmental nonprofit.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow recalled in a taped video how Helen “skipped out” of the 1980 Republican Party Convention, hosted in Detroit by her own husband. She opted to carry a sign in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment, which had been removed from the party platform.

“I’m sure it was an interesting time for the governor,” Stabenow said, to crowd laughter.

Close friend and Milliken staffer Joyce Braithwaite-Brickley gave a heartfelt account of how Helen stepped into a public role with no clear definition of what to do. From a reluctant First Lady, she grew into an effective leader with greater influence on people than she ever realized.

“Helen is organizing all the angels right now,” she said.

Juliette Schultz, interim director of the Women’s Resource Center, credited Helen for helping more than 4,000 women and children find refuge in Helen’s House Emergency Shelter.

“She was not afraid to roll up her sleeves and get dirty,” Schultz said. “… She helped us see ourselves as equals. Again, and again, and again.”

Newspaper columnist Jack Lessenberry said Helen Milliken operated in a “completely different time” than now. It’s unfair, he added, to compare the efforts of Susan Snyder, wife of Gov. Rick Snyder, in part, because Helen Milliken’s tenure was 14 years long.

“Susan Snyder has only had two years,” he said.

Susan Snyder said in a short interview, cut short by her husband, that the remarks of Braithwaite-Brickley were “very apropo.” Snyder said she has supported Ele’s Place, a nonprofit that creates statewide awareness on the topic of grieving children. She plans to do more after her daughter graduates from high school.


Service on TV

Michigan's public-access UpNorthTV recorded Monday's memorial service for former Michigan First Lady Helen Milliken in its entirety. Scheduled playback times on Charter cable channels 97 and 992 are as follows: n Thursday at 4 p.m. n Friday at noon n Saturday at 2 p.m. The recording also will be available on demand through the UpNorth Media Center website at