A Gentleman at My Gate
JUST AFTER THANKSGIVING I SAW NINETY-THREE-YEAR OLD former Michigan governor, William G. Milliken, in a small retail gift shop in his home town of Traverse City. We both were shopping for Christmas presents. What struck me was how diminutive he appeared in his physical stature; I remembered my own aging father becoming smaller in his last years of his life – I’m told a function of time and gravity. But the lasting impression that morning was noticing an engaging twinkle in his eyes as he thanked the clerk for her assistance. I was filled with admiration and respect watching him, careful not to violate his personal space.
The scene reminded me of Thuron L. Mills, the seasoned black waiter from North Carolina, referenced in my memoirs. “I can still see his twinkling eyes, especially when I closed mine, almost forty years later. His eyes defined pure, unspoiled goodness. There was no evil in this man, and I believe the worth of his being could be observed through his eyes.”
When Milliken was Governor of Michigan (elected 1968, serving thru 1982), I worked briefly as a parking lot guard at the State Capitol. It was a part-time job and was it ever a challenge. I was trying to make ends meet as a graduate student at MSU. I put on the gracious charm, but took from this job a dislike for quite a few of the elected officials that frequented the capitol parking lot. Certain officials hated showing their ID. I recall two gates smashed by impatient drivers and a barrage of complaints and horn-honking while on my watch. Alcohol and tardiness became soul mates as the representatives rushed to the parking lot to attend their nighttime session, huffing and puffing with ego. Security and protocol were low on their priorities. Thank goodness for automated gates. Technology does eventually triumph. It was indeed a horseshit job.
This chance encounter in a gift shop in Traverse City motivated me to research Milliken’s tenure as governor, perhaps for me to gain a little insight. I found a book in my library in Beulah, an older biography by Dave Dempsey, which I read over my Christmas holiday. The bottom-line: I had a new understanding of his skills and gained insight into the issues that he faced during the 1970s. What a steadfast man governing in such a volatile period. I was convinced that he was unselfish in his service. Reviews from many points described his character as forthright and decent, with egotism and self-righteousness not in his make-up. It amazed me when I compared this true executive with those legislative underlings that I’d encountered at the parking booth.
The biography concluded that he was “an icon of decency,” and this was in-step with my brief observation at the kitchen store. Yes, I could clearly see the reflective twinkle in Milliken’s eyes. What’s even nicer, he didn’t have a clue that I was there in the shop, or further, that I wrote this piece.
Nice eyes governor, I bet you would have been a gentleman at my gate.
Legacy Essays, 2015