Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Williams, G. Mennen

Gerhard Mennen “Soapy” Williams was a politician from Michigan who served for twelve years as its 41st Governor, from 1949 to 1961. Born on February 23, 1911 in Detroit, Michigan, Williams earned the nickname “Soapy” because his maternal grandfather was the founder of the Mennen brand of men’s personal care products, now marketed by the Colgate-Palmolive company, which made Williams an instant heir to his grandfather’s fortune. During his youth, Williams attended the Salisbury School, an exclusive Episcopalian preparatory school, in Connecticut. He graduated from Princeton University in 1933 and went on to earn a law degree at the University of Michigan Law School, graduating with a Juris Doctor in 1936. During his years in law school, Williams developed strong affiliations with the Democratic Party, breaking away from his family’s traditional ties to the Republican Party.

Upon graduation from law school, Williams spent time working for the law firm Griffiths, Williams, and Griffiths. As an avid supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Williams worked on the Social Security Board from 1936 to 1939, during which time he was appointed as Michigan’s assistant attorney general. During World War II, he served four years in the United States Navy as an air combat intelligence officer in the South Pacific, where he achieved the rank of lieutenant commander and earned ten battle stars. From 1946 to 1947, Williams served as the deputy director of the Office of Price Administration, and he was appointed to the Michigan Liquor Control Commission in 1947.

After running on a platform that supported organized labor and civil rights, Williams was elected as the 41st Governor of Michigan on November 2, 1948. He was inaugurated on January 1, 1949, and was subsequently re-elected five times, supported by a liberal labor coalition. During his twelve years as the Governor of Michigan, Williams advocated taxes on income and corporations. He served as a Michigan delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1952, 1956, and 1960. Due to struggles with the Republican-controlled state legislature in Michigan, Williams chose not to run for re-election in 1960, and his term as the Governor of Michigan ended on January 1, 1961.

After leaving office, Williams was appointed to the post of Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs by President John F. Kennedy, where he served from 1961 to 1966. In 1966, he ran for a position as U.S. Senator, but lost to the Republican incumbent Robert Griffith. In 1968, Williams was appointed as the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines by President Lyndon B. Johnson, where he served less than a year. Williams was elected to the Michigan Supreme Court in 1970, and he served as Chief Justice from 1982 to 1986.

 Sporting his “signature” green bow tie with white polka dots, Williams developed a solid reputation in politics. His most notable accomplishment during his tenure as the Governor of Michigan was his support for the construction of the Mackinac Bridge. Built to link Michigan’s lower and upper peninsulas, the Mackinac Bridge was completed in 1957, and became the world’s longest suspension bridge of its time. Williams also began a Michigan Labor Day tradition, which continues to the present day, of the governor leading the Mackinac Bridge Walk. G. Mennen Williams passed away on February 2, 1988 in Detroit, Michigan at the age of 76. He was laid to rest in the Protestant Cemetery on Mackinac Island.

Written by Julia Teran



G. Mennen Williams, center, 1953 - 2012.046.270

G. Mennen Williams and his mother, 1951 - 2012.047.450

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