Today we drove 200 miles north to arrive at North Higgins Lake State Park. The drive was very easy, despite periodic heavy rains, because Michigan has a number of wonderful freeways covering the state. These freeways are the legacy of Governor G. Mennen Williams, the State’s governor back in the 1950s. His nickname was “Soapy” Williams because it was his family that created the Mennen brand of men’s personal care products. It is my opinion that he is Michigan’s greatest governor. During World War II, he served four years in the United States Navy as an air combat intelligence officer in the South Pacific. He achieved the rank of lieutenant commander and earned ten battle stars.
In 1948, Williams was elected Governor of Michigan, defeating Governor Kim Sigler with the support of labor unions and dissident Republicans. He was subsequently elected to a record six two-year terms in that post.
In 1950, while visiting Marquette Branch Prison, Williams was attacked and briefly held hostage by a group of three inmates hoping to escape. The governor had a knife held to his throat, but his attackers were soon overpowered by his bodyguard and prison employees. One of his attackers was shot dead. Williams was unharmed and mostly unshaken, choosing to continue on with his tour of the Upper Peninsula. Later in the same year, Williams gained prominence for his refusal to extradite Haywood Patterson, one of the black Scottsboro Boys, who had escaped from prison in Alabama in 1948 and hidden in Detroit for two years.
Also, during Williams’ twelve years in office, a farm-marketing program was sanctioned, teachers’ salaries, school facilities and educational programs were improved and there were also commissions formed to research problems related to aging, sex offenders and adolescence behavior. Williams named the first woman judge in the state’s history as well as the first black. At the 1952, 1956 and 1960 Democratic National Conventions he fought for insertion of a strong civil rights plank in the party platform.
Among his accomplishments was the construction of the Mackinac Bridge and he cajoled the state legislature to expand upon the federal government’s efforts in constructing coast to coast a freeway system. The result was many of the state’s roads were constructed as four lane divided highways that, at the time, were the envy of the nation. They still are in wonderful condition and make traveling throughout Michigan an enjoyable experience.
He later served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs under President John F. Kennedy and then served as Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. That is a pretty remarkable resume!
Since it has been a rainy day and looks like tomorrow will be more of the same, we have not yet explored this state park or gone swimming in Higgins Lake. Once the sun returns, we look forward to doing that.