INTERLOCHEN — Friends, family and hundreds of admirers gathered in a long-awaited ceremony to honor the state’s longest-serving governor.
The Thursday afternoon memorial service drew a socially-distant crowd to pay homage to Gov. William G. Milliken, a man who by all accounts was admired, respected and loved during his 14 years as Michigan’s longest-serving governor and until his death in October.
On the stage at Interlochen’s Kresge Auditorium sat a leather office chair that had been Milliken’s during his years in Lansing and on the cover of the program, the portrait of that hangs in the Gallery of the Governors at the state Capitol.
“I understand my father was not too happy to make multiple trips to the DIA (Detroit Institute of Arts) to sit for this portrait,” said Bill Milliken, Jr., giving some levity to the occasion.
More than 200 people attended the memorial that had been help up for several months because of COVID-19. Instead of a reception after the event, attendees were offered a pine seedling representing not just the state tree, but Milliken’s middle name: Grawn, the Swedish word for pine and his mother’s maiden name.
Speakers included those who worked with Milliken, a Michigan State Police trooper whose guarded the governor during his years in office and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — all of whom considered Milliken a friend.
Whitmer’s father worked for Milliken when she was born. Her father learned lessons from Milliken that he passed on to her and her siblings.
“As a kid growing up in Michigan in the ‘70s and ‘80s I was a direct recipient of his leadership,” Whitmer said. “My birth announcement even mentioned Gov. Milliken.”
The influence he had on the state will live on long after he is gone, she said.
“Governor Milliken was a governor of all the people of this state — those who voted for him and those who didn’t,” Whitmer said. “He taught us that we are Michiganders first and we should work for the betterment of the state.”
Milliken’s legacy lies in his strong support of the business community, as well as his stands on civil rights, race relations, cleaning up the Great Lakes and the protection of natural resources. He was pro-choice and championed women’s rights, supporting the Equal Rights Amendment. He also believed in assisted suicide and same-sex marriage.
Bill Rustem worked with Milliken for many years.
“He had a strong sense of what was right and what was wrong,” Rustem told the crowd. “He was deeply and genuinely committed to leaving the citizenry of Michigan better than when he started.”
Amy Trotter is executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs and worked with Milliken when she was fresh out of college. She drove from Lansing to attend the memorial.
“The remarks here captured so eloquently the legacy of conservation and the public discourse that I hope we can all aspire to,” Trotter said.
Milliken was born in Traverse City and lived there for most of his life. He served in the Michigan Senate from 1961 to 1964, soon becoming the Senate majority floor leader and then lieutenant governor for Gov. George Romney. He became governor when Romney resigned to take a cabinet appointment in the Nixon administration.
He also saw combat in World War II where he flew 50 missions and survived two crash landings.
Trudy Gallant-Stokes met Milliken when she came to Traverse City to make a video on him for the Detroit Urban League.
“The service was bea- utiful,” Gallant-Stokes said. “It took a while to happen, but it was worth the wait.”
In 2004 Milliken broke with the Republicans to endorse John Kerry in his bid to unseat George W. Bush; in 2008 he endorsed Sen. John McCain for president, but withdrew that support when McCain’s campaign attacked Democratic candidate Barack Obama.
In 2016 he was unable to endorse Donald Trump and voted for Hillary Clinton.
But Milliken was known for his ability to work across the aisle, seeking to build bridges, not walls, Rustem said.
“If the purpose of life is to live a life of purpose, then William Milliken more than met that task,” he said.