Environment Picture

In Memoriam: Helen Milliken

Redefined the role of Michigan’s First Spouse with tenacity, humility
There’s a darn good reason that the state’s top environmental honor is not simply called the William Milliken Distinguished Service Award.

It is properly called the Helen & William Milliken Distinguished Service Award in recognition that both the former governor and his wife made their own substantial legacies in protecting Michigan’s natural resources during the course of their careers. The award is presented annually by the Michigan Environmental Council.

Helen, who passed away in late 2012, was honored in June during a memorial service in Traverse City. MEC President Chris Kolb, who attended the service, said it is bittersweet that the 2013 Milliken Award will be presented in the absence of one of the award’s namesakes.

“Helen Milliken was a forceful, steady voice speaking on behalf of Michigan’s natural resources and other important issues like equal rights for women and the arts,” said Kolb. “We are humbled to be able to present the Milliken Award in her name to perpetuate her legacy in this one small way.”

At a time when Michigan first ladies typically were seen and not heard, Helen Milliken redefined the role in a more vocal—and cerebral—way. She campaigned for the ill-fated women’s Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; railed against the blight of billboards on Michigan’s landscapes; challenged oil drilling in the pristine Pigeon River Country; and was a champion of the arts and the state’s natural beauty.

She pursued all these causes passionately, but with the quiet and soft-spoken nature borne of humility: “Her voice was like soft music,” said longtime friend and colleague Joyce Braithwaite-Brickley at the June 3 memorial service. “No matter how annoying things became and no matter how disappointing people could be…she was never given to ranting or raving….” She “opened hearts, changed minds and adjusted to changing circumstances herself.”

Braithwaite-Brickley recounted Helen Milliken’s forceful, yet low-key approach to pursuing positive change in the public arena—a stage that she did not choose for herself, but that came with the job of being “the governor’s wife.”

“I look back on so many years with Helen and all the contributions she made in all of her state and national endeavors, the quiet way she always stepped aside when accolades were given, the supreme pleasure she got from our escapades.”

“Helen didn’t really want to be the only woman at the public table,” Braithwaite-Brickley continued. “She wanted all of us there. She went out of her way to be a mentor, to encourage young women in particular. She was, inexhaustibly, an influence greater than she ever knew.”

Longtime political journalist Tim Skubick called Helen Milliken “…a female trailblazer of the best kind,” writing in a column about the memorial service that, “The laughter and tears this day only serve to underscore that the State of Michigan was blessed to have her…you can’t disagree that she was a class act and single-handedly rewrote the book on how to be an independent First Lady.”
-Hugh McDiarmid
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