Everybody called him ‘Soapy.’
His real name was Gerhard Mennen Williams. His father was a minister, his mother CEO of the Mennen Company which manufactured shaving cream and other toiletries.
As a boy, he had been sent to a ranch in Wyoming one summer along with his two brothers. The cowboys nicknamed them Suds, Lather and Soapy. Soapy stuck.
Soapy was from Grosse Pointe. The old Grosse Pointe, before it was overrun with newly rich automobile makers.
At age 14, he was shipped off to Salisbury prep school in Connecticut, where he was seen as an oddity: a Midwesterner with breeding. At Salisbury, Soapy earned the highest grade point average of any student, before or since.
Then it was off to Princeton in 1929. There he skied, wrestled, played basketball, rowed on crew, won two varsity football letters, made Phi Beta Kappa, and….
And was elected president of the Young Republicans.
At the law school of the University of Michigan in the mid 1930’s, the talk was all about the New Deal. Idealism was the mood of the day. Utopia was on the horizon.
Soapy was converted. He became a Democrat. He would go into politics. He would make a difference.
His rise in Michigan politics was meteoric. The protégé of Governor Frank Murphy, he was on the inside track even before enlisting in the Navy, where he earned 10 Pacific battle stars and the Legion of Merit, mustering out in 1946 as a lieutenant commander.
By the summer of 1948, as the Democratic nominee for Governor of Michigan he made his national television debut as a feisty opponent of the Dixiecrats at the national convention.
Always a great campaigner, his enthusiasm for pressing the flesh was matched by his knack for calling square dances. The unions delivered the big cities, while Soapy charmed the farmers and the small town Republicans.
And he won. At a time when Michigan governors served two year terms, Soapy amassed six consecutive victories from 1948 through 1958.
On September 15, 1952, the cover of Time magazine featured the handsome face of Soapy Williams, his patented green polka dot bow tie, broad toothy grin and steely blue eyes surrounded by champagne bubbles.
The cover story called him a prodigy and recounted how people had predicted he would one day be President of the United States.
In fact, he went to the 1952 Democratic convention at the head of a Michigan delegation which had adopted him as its favorite son. When the choice came down to Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson or Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, Williams and Michigan opted to support the Senator.
Perhaps he thought he had a better chance of being tapped for Vice President by someone who didn’t come from just across Lake Michigan.
He served his country and his party in various capacities during the Kennedy years.
Finally, he decided to cap off his career as a Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. He was elected in 1970.
I first met Soapy Williams in 1959. I was hosting an Irish fundraiser on Saint Patrick’s Day to boost my unsuccessful campaign for judge in Detroit. Soapy stopped by to greet a group of Young Democrats who were gathering down the hall, and I went down and invited him to come and meet our people.
He came, was gracious, and made a big hit.
We served together on the court for three years from 1971 through 1973. I found him to be a warm and thoughtful colleague.
More than that, he was a man of sound morals, dedicated and committed to public service. He was a leader in the classic Protestant mold; ambitious for power and authority, but solely for the purpose of doing good as he saw it.
Soapy was a good man and he knew it. Being conscious of his own rectitude gave him a certain messianic determination to be the boss.
In the Supreme Court that meant being Chief Justice. And Soapy wanted it.