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Fond memories of Gov. Milliken, a truly classy politician

EDITOR’s NOTE: Capitol correspondent Tim Skubick covered Gov. Bill Milliken for 50 years, starting with the day Milliken was sworn in as governor.

The governor’s office on the second floor of the state Capitol was packed to the gills. There was a sense of joy and anticipation in the air. Within a few minutes, a piece of Michigan history would unfold as the transfer of power from one governor to another was about to begin.

Standing in the back of that room for the first time in 1969, you could see a stately man standing next to his spouse just behind the governor’s desk as he prepared for the oath of office.

They seem like such nice persons.

The thought breezed through my head, not knowing that eventually it would be clear that the first impression of Gov. William Milliken and first lady Helen Milliken was spot-on.

“I, William G. Milliken do solemnly swear …,” and then it was over but, a 14-year ride as the state’s longest-serving governor had just begun.

And an incredible ride it was.

It ended Friday at his beloved home in Traverse City as Gov. William Grawn Milliken, age 97, died.

Many were aware this was coming, as his health had faded over the last year or so, but it was still a jolt in that so many good times and bad came flooding over those who watched him and admired him for the last 50 years.

Some words come to mind as the town reflects on the Milliken years. “Gentleman” would certainly be at the top of the list, followed by “integrity” and “passionate” about pubic service and the environment and his bipartisanship gene was a dominant one. He worked both sides of the aisle, many times more comfortably with Democrats than with some from his own party who did not share his moderate philosophy, which nonetheless served him so well in office.

He was a low-key personality. He was no phony back-slapper. He did not light up a room when he walked in, but, if he talked to you, you left the room feeling he was a governor who was serving for all the right reasons and self-aggrandizement was not one of them.

He once remarked, as he watched too many lawmakers jockeying to get reelected, that winning office was not your first assignment.

“Doing good public policy is first, and the reelection will take care of itself,” he shared with a cub reporter still learning the ropes.

He lamented that that notion was not the currency of the realm during his day.

As all governors do, he bumped into issues he did not create but must resolve, nonetheless, and he would tell you PBB was his moment — and it got ugly.

After some fire retardant, PBB, was accidentally mixed into some cattle feed and shipped to farms all over the state, the Milliken administration found itself smack-dab in the middle of the worst human chemical contamination problem on record: 90% of residents consumed small doses of the chemical.

There was no pre-ordained playbook to guide him as his team struggled to minimize the damage. And, while there was nothing funny about any of it, there was one light-hearted moment: The governor was trying to get the head of the state agriculture department to take action to reduce the human exposure, but the director, who was not appointed by the governor, refused to act.

As the governor was leaving the office and going down the steps, this reporter, with camera rolling, asked, “Governor, do you support the agriculture director 100%?”

The governor stopped in his tracks and handed his briefcase to a member of his security detail, and then uttered this: “Tim Skubick, someday I’d like to toss you over this railing.”

I suggested that I needed a story and he should precede. There was laughter and he moved on … without answering the question, of course.

Then there was the not-so-funny need to apologize to him that underscored he was a politician who did not hold a grudge, although many do. I had done an interview with the governor that crossed the line. Word quickly got back that he was angry, and it was suggested an apology would be appropriate. I called his secretary and she set up a face-to-face meeting. It would not be like the first time I stood in his office.

His secretary opened the door and he walked from behind his desk and sat in a chair in the middle of the room and motioned for me to set down next to him. He proceeded to explain why he felt mistreated, and I listened intently.

I agreed that he was right, and I apologized, and he added this coda: “I will be wary of you in the future,” he warned.

I thought he said weary, but he made it clear what he meant. But, in true WGM form, the mutual trust was quickly restored, and the issue never came up again.

It will be said by some that, if he was on the ballot, most of the Republican Party today would have no part of his brand of let’s-work-together politics. He would be sad to concede the point, but he would never have changed, an,d when asked why he didn’t leave his party, he noted: “Because it would never change if I did leave.”

He hoped against hope that, somehow, Republicans would see the light.

Most of the governors that followed him did see that light, and they would privately tell you they wanted to follow the Milliken premier on how to be a great governor.

He achieved that status and then some, and he leaves us with a wealth of memories and a sense that we and this state are all better off for having been with him lo these many years.

All good stories must come to and end, and his was way more than good.