G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams, Governor

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Gerhard Mennen "Soapy" Williams

Birthdate: (77)
Death: 1988 (77)
Immediate Family:

Son of Henry Phillips Williams and Elma Williams
Husband of Nancy Lace Williams

Managed by: Private User
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About G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams, Governor


Gerhard Mennen "Soapy" Williams, (February 23, 1911 – February 2, 1988), was a politician from the US state of Michigan. An heir to a personal grooming products fortune, he was known as "Soapy," and wore a trademark green bow tie with white polka dots.

A Democrat, Williams served for twelve years as the 41st Governor of Michigan and also served on the Michigan Supreme Court where he later became Chief Justice. Williams' most notable accomplishment as governor was the construction of the Mackinac Bridge which links Michigan's Lower Peninsula and Upper Peninsula. At the time, this was the "world's longest suspension bridge between anchorages."

Early life

Williams was born in Detroit, Michigan, to Henry P. Williams and Elma Mennen. His mother came from a prominent family; her father, Gerhard Heinrich Mennen, was the founder of the Mennen brand of men's personal care products (now marketed by the Colgate-Palmolive company). Because of this, Williams acquired the popular nickname "Soapy".

Williams attended the Salisbury School in Connecticut, an exclusive Episcopalian preparatory school. He graduated from Princeton University in 1933 and received a law degree from the University of Michigan Law School. While at law school, Williams became affiliated with the Democratic Party, departing from his family's strong ties to the Republican Party.

Williams met Nancy Quirk on a blind date while attending the university. She was the daughter of D. L. Quirk and Julia (Trowbridge) Quirk, a prominent Ypsilanti family involved in banking and paper milling. Her brother, Daniel Quirk, was later mayor of Ypsilanti [1]. The couple married in 1937 and produced three children; a son, G. Mennen Williams Jr., and two daughters, Nancy Ketterer III and Wendy Stock Williams.

He worked with the law firm Griffiths, Williams and Griffiths from 1936 to 1941. 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. He later served as the deputy director of the Office of Price Administration from 1946 to 1947. Williams was named to the Michigan state Liquor Control Commission in 1947.

Governor of Michigan

On November 2, 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. His most enduring accomplishment was probably the construction of the Mackinac Bridge, and he began the tradition of the governor leading the Mackinac Bridge Walk across it every Labor Day. He also appeared on the cover of Time Magazine’s September 15, 1952 issue, sporting his signature green bow tie with white polka dots. Frederick E. Tripp was his legislative adviser.

He was also famous for refusing to extradite Haywood Patterson, one of the Scottsboro Boys a prison escapee who was incarcerated, upon shaky testimony, for the rape of two white women.

Also during his 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. He was also a delegate from Michigan to Democratic National Convention, in 1952 and 1956, in both years nominated Adlai Stevenson for U.S. President, who was unsuccessful against General Dwight Eisenhower in both general elections. He returned as a delegate to the 1960 convention, which nominated John F. Kennedy who was successful against Vice President Richard Nixon.

His final term in office was marked by high-profile struggles with the Republican-controlled state legislature and a near-shutdown of the state government. He therefore chose not to seek reelection in 1960. Williams left office on January 1, 1961, his 12 years in office ultimately surpassed only by William Milliken (who served 14 years as governor).

Post gubernatorial years

After leaving office in 1961, Williams assumed the post of Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the administration of President John F. Kennedy, where Williams became known for his frequent refrain, "Africa for the Africans!" He served in this post until early 1966, when he resigned to unsuccessfully challenge Republican United States Senator Robert P. Griffin. Two years later, he was named by President Lyndon B. Johnson to be U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, where he served less than a year.

"Governor Williams" (he tended to use that honorific as an introductory phrase throughout his career) was elected to the Michigan Supreme Court in 1970 and was named Chief Justice in 1983. Thus, like William Howard Taft in the federal government, he occupied the highest executive and judicial offices in Michigan government.

Retirement and death

He left the Court on January 1, 1987 and died the following year in Detroit at the age of 76, just three weeks before his birthday. He was temporarily entombed at Evergreen Cemetery in Detroit and there was a formal military funeral for him. After winter his remains were interred at the Protestant Cemetery on Mackinac Island.

During his life he had been a member of the Order of the Coif, the Grange, Americans for Democratic Action, United World Federalists, American Legion, AMVETS, Sons of the American Revolution, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Freemasons, Eagles, Elks, Moose International, AHEPA, Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Delta Phi, and Phi Gamma Delta.

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G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams, Governor's Timeline

Age 77