1911 : Soapy Williams Born, Future Michigan Governor

February 23, 2018 all-day

Governor Soapy Williams, on the cover of Time, September 15, 1952, courtesy of the Wikipedia Commons

No matter which party you support, former Governor G. Mennen “Soapy’’ Williams demonstrates how a single leader can change a state and its culture rapidly. He served six terms as Governor of Michigan from 1949 to 1960, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 1961 to 1966, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines from 1968 to 1970, and as a justice on the Michigan Supreme Court (Chief Justice from 1983 to 1986). He died on February 2, 1988 at age 76.

Heir to the Mennen shaving lotions fortune (hence the nickname), Williams started off as a lawyer, earned 10 battle stars during World War II, and then joined the civil service force at the Office of Price Administration and later the Liquor Control Commission. He ran for governor as a Democrat in 1948 — against the will of his mother, who refused to donate any of the family fortune to a Democratic candidate. In office, he helped push the decades-in the-making Mackinac Bridge to completion and started the annual bridge walk tradition.

After the governorship, he served as a foreign diplomat for Presidents Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He was elected to the Michigan Supreme Court in 1970 and remained on the bench until 1986, serving as chief justice his last four years.


Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society, National Governors Association, Detroit Historical Society, DTMB

Detroit Historical Society Facebook Page

Joseph Serwach, Soapy at 100, Dome, February 20, 2011.

Justin A. Hinkley, “Murray who? Meet state office buildings’ namesakes”, Lansing State Journal, October 27, 2015.

For more information, see Soapy: A Biography of G. Mennen Williams by Thomas J. Noer (University of Michigan Press) – With a stunning 1948 upset that reflected his unrivaled campaigning skills, G. Mennen Williams became Michigan’s 41st governor, only the second Democrat to win since the Civil War. This book charts the highs and lows of the governor’s life and distinguished political career, including the construction of the Mackinac Bridge, leading the state to financial bankruptcy, 1960 presidential aspirations, his unabashed liberalism, his time as the chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, and the origins of both his nickname and trademark bow tie. The MSU community and other subscribers can access the book online via Ebrary or EBSCO.