The Way It Was

Former Michigan Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams at the 1960 Democratic presidential convention in Los Angeles


PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF The Tony Spina Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University


Former Michigan Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, shown here as a delegate to the 1960 Democratic presidential convention in Los Angeles, earned his nickname because of his maternal grandfather’s ownership of the Mennen toiletries business. But the sobriquet “Soapy” also could be applied to him because of his squeaky-clean reputation. Yes, detractors complained about the Democratic leader’s tax-and-spend policies and how the state neared financial collapse under his watch, but even the staunchest Republican couldn’t accuse Gerhard Mennen Williams of dirty politics. Williams’ trademark was a green-and-white polka-dot tie, a large version of which can be seen under this “Michigan” sign. The tradition started when his brother, Dick, gave him the accessory as a good-luck token at Williams’ first inauguration. Born in 1911 to wealth on Detroit’s Merrick Street in what is now part of Wayne State University’s campus, the towering 6-foot-3 Williams broke from his family’s Republican ties and became a Democrat. In 1948, he won the first of six two-year terms as governor. He was, unashamedly, a liberal, supporting civil rights, labor (although he detested Jimmy Hoffa), the mentally ill, and the incarcerated. To him, an elected official’s job was simple: supporting the welfare of the people. A devout Episcopalian, Williams read Bible verses every day and quoted Scripture in speeches. His opponents called him mulish and uncompromising. But in Frank McNaughton’s 1960 book, Mennen Williams of Michigan: Fighter for Progress, the author quotes his subject: “I believe in the art of compromise … but I have, and never will, compromise on principle.” In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Williams assistant secretary of state for African affairs; later, he served as ambassador to the Philippines. After being defeated by Robert Griffin in a 1966 run for the U.S. Senate, Williams was elected to the Michigan Supreme Court and was named chief justice in 1983. He died five years later. One of Williams’ achievements as governor was the building of the 5-mile-long Mackinac Bridge, but he’ll be remembered, perhaps more significantly, as a builder of bridges among people, the span of which is immeasurable. 


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