TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Admirers of Helen Milliken recalled the former Michigan first lady Monday as a quiet but impassioned champion of a clean environment and gender equality, a devoted wife and mother, and a role model for generations of younger women who yearn to make a difference.
“She was a friend, a mentor, someone I looked up to my whole adult life … this woman of amazing commitment and courage,” U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow said in a videotaped message played during a memorial service for the wife of former Gov. William Milliken.
Hundreds paid their respects to Helen Milliken in an auditorium named for the couple at Northwestern Michigan College. Among them were Bill Milliken Jr. of Ann Arbor.
She died in November after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her husband, the 91-year-old former governor, attended the service and greeted guests afterward but made no formal remarks. He was Michigan’s longest-serving governor, holding office from 1969-82.
The memorial drew Gov. Rick Snyder, veterans of the Milliken administration and advocates of causes that Helen Milliken championed, as well as Traverse City residents who recalled her as foremost a cherished friend and neighbor — and an avid gardener who relished growing flowers and visiting the local farmer’s market.
At a time when many believed a governor’s wife should keep her opinions to herself, she campaigned for abortion rights and the ill-fated Equal Rights Amendment and angered the outdoor advertising industry by criticizing highway billboards as unsightly clutter. She also befriended the arts, co-founding ArtrainUSA, an art museum housed in rail cars.
Joyce Braithwaite-Brickley, a top aide to William Milliken and close friend of his wife, said Helen Milliken deftly handled the unofficial but important role of first lady with political savvy and grace.
“Her voice was like soft music,” Braithwaite-Brickley said. “No matter how annoying things became and no matter how disappointing people could be, no matter the crisis around her, she was never given to ranting or raving.”
Snyder praised her inclusive spirit, saying she looked for common ground with all sides even while taking firm positions on touchy issues.
“Too many people still believe that economic growth is at odds with either being environmentally sound or having good arts and culture, whereas the right answer is … they complement one another,” he said. “I think Helen Milliken was at the forefront of putting that proposition in front of us and helping us understand that.”
After her husband retired from politics, Milliken remained active, particularly in Traverse City, where the couple lived. She served on the board of the Michigan Land Use Institute and the Women’s Resource Center, which named its shelter for domestic abuse victims “Helen’s House” in her honor.
“Always, always, always it was the plight of women that concerned her,” said Terrie Taylor, a longtime friend.
Milliken’s support was crucial in the early days of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, which has protected thousands of sensitive acres from development, executive director Glen Chown said.
“She believed in that principle of thinking globally and acting locally,” Chown said. “She thought about the big picture but also those treasures in her own backyard.”
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