Michigan Lawyers in History--G. Mennen Williams—Michigan’s Lawyer Public Servant

by Stephen D. Conley

For 50 years, G. Mennen Williams was a lawyer who made a difference as a public servant, both in Michigan and around the world. In Michigan, he revitalized the Democratic Party, served six terms as governor, oversaw the building of the Mackinac Bridge, and served two terms as a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court including four years as its chief justice. In Africa and the Philippines, he was a diplomat whose presence was felt and appreciated by the people there.

Mennen was born into a prominent Detroit family on February 23, 1911. He was the eldest son of wealthy parents who were very active in Republican politics, the Episcopalian Church, and numerous civic affairs. His maternal grandfather founded the Mennen Company, which sold toiletries, ergo his nickname "Soapy." While he and his two younger brothers lived on an impressive scale within high social circles, they were made to feel that neither wealth nor social position set them apart from other children.

In the Williams’s home, school, reading, and travel were considered important elements of education. At the age of 14, Soapy began attending the Salisbury School in Connecticut, a highly exclusive Episcopalian prep school limited to only 100 students. During his five years there he excelled as a student and athlete. Thereafter, he attended Princeton University and obtained his law degree from the University of Michigan.

Soapy decided on a career in public service while in prep school and at Princeton decided that the best way to do it was to be governor of Michigan. He tried to be a liberal Republican but said that he just couldn’t make that work.

Soapy cited law school as the turning point in his political affiliation. He had friends there who were Democrats and developed a tremendous admiration for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Even though Soapy was raised under the strong influence of the Republican Party, family influences helped him formulate social concerns. As with many other social liberals of the mid-20th century who came from wealthy established families, Soapy had a conscience for causes before their time. At a large gathering of Republican family friends, Soapy announced that he had become a Democrat and told them why in an oration that included the denouncement of soup lines in Detroit.

After law school, in 1936 Soapy went to work in Washington D.C. as a lawyer for the Social Security Board, where he helped prepare the briefs that got the Social Security Act upheld in the U.S. Supreme Court. He returned to Michigan in 1937 to serve as an Assistant Attorney General in the administration of Governor Frank Murphy. When Governor Murphy went to Washington D.C. in 1939 as U.S. Attorney General, Soapy went with him as his Executive Assistant.

During World War II, Soapy served four years in the U.S. Navy as an air combat intelligence officer in the South Pacific, where he earned 10 battle stars and rose to the rank of lieutenant commander.

In 1947, he was appointed to the Michigan Liquor Control Commission. One year later, Soapy forged a new and vital alliance with the state Democratic Party. At the age of 37, he mortgaged his home and traveled the state with his wife, Nancy, in a beat up old DeSoto talking to voters while dressed in rumpled clothes and bow ties. Nancy worked almost as hard as Soapy at the political game. She was highly intelligent, an excellent speaker, a devoted mother to their three children, and an effective campaigner.

Soapy was advised early in his career by Federal Judge Raymond W. Starr to take a person’s hand firmly when greeting them and to look that person straight in the eye at the same time. He worked hard at having a great memory for names. It was not unusual for him to personally refer to people he had not seen in a long time by name in his folksy manner and to inquire about their spouse or children by their names too. The sincerity of his handshake and his recall of names and personal circumstances created bonds of respect and admiration with those he greeted around the world.

With considerable support from both labor and dissident Republicans, Soapy staged an upset victory and became Michigan’s "boy governor" in 1948. When he won the gubernatorial election, Soapy’s brother Dick gave him a green and white polka-dot bow tie for an inaugural gift and it became his trademark from then on.

As governor, Soapy attracted national attention because of his popularity with voters and the liberal programs he supported. In 1952 and 1956, he went to the Democratic National Convention as Michigan’s favorite-son candidate.

From the beginning, Soapy understood that he would have to get strong public support for his projects to overcome legislative resistance that had balked at even the mild reforms proposed by his Republican predecessor. He used collaboration as a tool and told the Legislature: "The people of Michigan expect us to work together to find these solutions....They have elected us, a bi-partisan administration and a bi-partisan Legislature, to work in harmony in their interests." He believed in the art of compromise as long as it did not violate his principles. In his personal notes he stated: "I did not veto every bill the wisdom of which I questioned. I felt the Legislature was meant to exercise its best discretion. I did veto bills I thought were as a matter of principle against public policy."

To get support for his progressive programs, Soapy appointed "commissions" consisting of people who are today known as stakeholders. These commissions would be given the responsibility for producing answers to the problems assigned to them, a process now referred to as developing ownership. The building of the Mackinac Bridge was one of many projects accomplished through the commission process. During his tenure as governor, civil rights protections were strengthened, state support for mental health services was increased, the state’s higher education system was expanded, and the state’s highway system was improved.

Religion was a major influence in Soapy’s life. He matured as a devout and sincere Episcopalian who honored and respected all religions and individual convictions. He felt that God had a purpose for his life—"to direct him in doing those things for other men and women, in bringing more of good and less of evil—more of hope and less of despair into their lives." Although he did not make a pretentious display of his faith, those around him knew of his religious commitment, and no one seemed to mind that many state level meetings began with a prayer.

In 1960, Soapy planned a nationwide drive for the Democratic Presidential nomination but abandoned his plans because of John F. Kennedy’s insurmountable lead. Under President Kennedy’s administration, Soapy was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during a critical period of transition for African nations from colonial status to independence. His declaration of a policy of "Africa for the Africans" in 1961 angered many white Africans but affirmed American support for the independence movement.

Soapy returned to Michigan in 1966 to run for the U.S. Senate. After an unsuccessful campaign for this office, he was appointed Ambassador to the Philippines, where he was well known for visiting remote villages, adopting native dress,and participating in native dances. Soapy’sability to call square dances was legen-dary in rural parts of Michigan. In Africaand in the Philippines, he taught others square dancing and learned their dances as a "way of showing respect" culture-to-culture.

Soapy was elected to the Michigan Supreme Court in 1970 and served until 1987, serving as chief justice from 1983 to 1987. Once again he used his political skills and the commission process to improve Michigan’s "One Court of Justice" in such areas as reducing unnecessary delay, improving court services, becoming more sensitive to gender and ethnic bias, and increasing funding for court operations.

When he retired, Soapy offered this advice to young people considering public service as a career: "Get a career that is a profession or a trade, so that you won’t have to be dependent on politics for a livelihood. Then get into government any way you can!"

On February 2, 1988, Soapy died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. A formal military funeral was held for him and he was buried in the Protestant Cemetery on Mackinac Island.

Upon learning of Soapy’s death, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Robert Griffin, who had defeated Soapy in the 1966 U.S. Senate race, said: "Despite our political differences, he was always a generous and gracious friend when we were in political combat and ever since then. I think the state, the court and the nation have lost a very loyal and effective public servant."

On June 1, 1997, Governor John Engler dedicated the G. Mennen Williams Building in Lansing in honor of Soapy. At the dedication Governor Engler said,

Governor Williams exemplified the commitment to service which was typical of his generation. His great achievements to state and country during his 50 years of public service place him among the best that Michigan has ever produced. His tireless activism, dedication, and commitment to bettering the lives of individuals and the community were inspirational during his lifetime and continue to serve as a standard for us today.

Stephen D. Conley is a sole practicing attorney in Jackson. He is a member of the Bar Journal Advisory Board.

Thomas M. Farrell, public information officer for the Michigan Supreme Court from 1985 to 1994, contributed to the article. He is now retired from state government.