A Fond Memory of Michigan Chief Justice and Governor G. Mennen (“Soapy”) Williams


In May of 1971 I was the director of a project funded by a federal grant for management improvements in the Cleveland courts.  The Cleveland Bar Association (CBA) furnished an office and a secretary in the city’s famous Terminal Tower.

I had developed a strong interest in court management while driving several hours each way across the State of Washington three times, from Seattle to Spokane and back, to deliver fifteen minutes of testimony as an FBI agent in a bank robbery conspiracy case.

When I returned to the office late that spring day in 1971, Pete Roper, the personable and very helpful director of the CBA, was in my doorway offering a message slip before I could hang up my suit coat.

“From Justice Williams of the Michigan Supreme Court,” he said, handing me the message slip with the return phone number.

I thanked him and asked why he was delivering the message.  Not that I had calls from supreme court justices every day, but I confess I didn’t connect “Justice Williams” with the guy who was Governor of Michigan when I was a high school student at Mt. Carmel in Chicago.

“I’d call him right away,” Pete said, “he used to be the Governor of Michigan.”

That got my attention.  Soon as Pete left I called.  In a raspy baritone I later imitated fairly well, Michigan Supreme Court Justice and former Governor Williams asked me to come to Michigan to describe the programs I was trying to get going in Cleveland, especially the computerized court systems.

I agreed to meet with him and, as he put it, “a few of our local business people who have some experience with computer systems.”

A week or so later, having planned to meet with a few Detroit and Wayne County court judges and staff in addition to meeting with Justice Williams, I drove to Detroit early for a breakfast meeting.  The “local business people,” he had at the meeting turned out to be the CEO’s and Information Technology Directors of a few local businesses commonly known as Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors.

How I managed not to exhibit my quickly frazzled bundle of nerves and a completely outclassed self I’ll never know, but I guess I managed to say a few fairly intelligent things about computers in the courts.  A few hours later Justice Williams tracked me down on the phone at Detroit’s Recorder’s Court and asked me to meet with him and Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas M. Kavanagh to discuss coming to work as their Director of Systems.

I agreed to return to Michigan, and before I had that second meeting I read a biography of G. Mennen (“Soapy”) Williams and discovered he had been elected Governor of Michigan six times, was on President Kennedy’s short list for Vice President, and had served as an Ambassador in the Kennedy Administration.  The biography also mentioned that Williams had been on the cover of TIME Magazine as Governor.

I also learned the nickname “Soapy” was given to him by his brothers, who also had nicknames related to the family’s products under the Mennen brand (think after shave lotions, bath soap, etc.).

A few months later I was the only Director of Systems on the staff of a state supreme court in the entire country; such was the infant stage of the use of computers in the courts in 1972.

A year later I was promoted to the job of State Court Administrator when Bill Hart, who had supported my efforts and was a genuinely good guy, had to take a disability retirement.

When Williams died in February of 1988, I was privileged to attend his funeral in a warm church while thousands of mourners lined Woodward Avenue in subfreezing weather.

He was benefactor, inspiration, example and friend.

Today we can use a search engine on a portable computer to look up his history and accomplishments, and even see his TIME Magazine cover;  simple steps with modern technology that he would have been delighted to see.

For more about G. Mennen (“Soapy”) Williams, see:

http://www.google.com/#bav=on.2,or.r_qf.&fp=c5ac61bdc55b1438&q=g.+mennen+williams

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