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G Mennen Williams

Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015

G. Mennen Williams, Michigan’s popular governor from 1948- 1960, is remembered for his impressive public service as well as his polka dot tie and nickname. Born on February 23, 1911, Gerhard Mennen Williams was named for his grandfather Gerhard Heinrich Mennen. He acquired the nickname Soapy because Grandpa’s company manufactured toiletries and talcum powder. Many of us still use Mennen products including shaving cream, Speed Stick deodorant, and Baby Magic.

Mennen enjoyed a privileged youth, attending Salisbury School, an exclusive Episcopalian prep school in Connecticut, Princeton, and the University of Michigan Law School. He decided to pursue a career in public service while still at Salisbury and although raised in a staunch Republican family, he became a Democrat while at Princeton. Williams admired Franklin D. Roosevelt and advocated for social causes.

Upon his graduation from law school in 1936, Williams worked in Washington DC for the Social Security Board and then as Assistant Attorney General for Michigan Governor Frank Murphy. He enlisted in the Navy during World War II, earned 10 battle stars, and the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

In 1948, at the age of 37, Mennen mortgaged his house to fund his first gubernatorial campaign. His mother refused any financial support because he ran as a Democrat. With the support of his wife Nancy, labor unions, and dissident Republicans Willaims won the office in a upset victory. His brother Dick gave him a green bow tie with white polka dots as an inaugural gift. The tie quickly became Soapy’s trademark.

Governor Williams served six consecutive terms, gaining popularity and support through each term He relied heavily on consensus building through appointed commissions to advance programs and policies that he supported. Williams oversaw construction of the Mackinaw Bridge, strengthened the state’s higher education system, improved Michigan’s highways and protections for civil rights and mental health services. Governor Williams reviewed and approved the Charter for the City of Troy in 1955.

When he left the Governor’s office, Williams was appointed Secretary of State for African Affairs (1960-65) and then US Ambassador to the Philippians (1968-69). He was elected to the Michigan Supreme Court in 1970 and served as Chief Justice from 1983-1986.

G. Mennen Williams died following a cerebral hemorrhage on February 2, 1988. He is buried on Mackinaw Island.

To learn more please read:

Soapy: A Biography of G Mennen Williams, by Thomas J. Noer, available at the Troy Public Library

Welcome to 365 Stories. On December 12, 1955 Troy Township was incorporated as the City of Troy. A great deal has changed in our local community, the State of Michigan, our country and the world in the last sixty years. Technology, communication, environmental awareness, human rights, medicine, scientific discoveries, global political and economic policies, and even the furnishings and gadgets in our own homes have all changed. Our goal is to publish a different story each day in 2015 that highlights a person, discovery, or event that occurred locally, regionally, nationally, or even globally between 1955 and 2015 that helped shape our lives and our community. We will try to post stories on important anniversary dates, but we also realize that dates are less critical than content and context.

We invite you to read and comment on the stories. Your suggestions for topics are also welcome and can be posted on our Facebook page. You can also email stories or ideas to the 365 Story Editor at ed@thvmail.org.  A story should be between 150- 250 words and include at least two references. Attach illustrations as jpegs at 300 dpi. Please respect copyrights when quoting material or attaching images. Also remember that 60 years is a lot of time to cover. We can’t possibly include all noteworthy events. But our collective memory and research will provide a good historic perspective and a wonderful way to actively commemorate this important anniversary year in Troy.

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