When textile tycoon Roger Milliken died last month, Spartanburg and the whole of South Carolina appropriately mourned him and loudly sang his praises.
The same could have been done in Hall County and scores of other communities where his impact was evident though not as publicized.
Milliken turned the company that his grandfather and father founded in New York into Milliken & Co., which grew into 50 locations in seven countries. Among those sites were New Holland Mills, which continues to operate, and Gainesville Mill, which closed several years ago.
The two mills were the largest employer in Hall County for many years working more than 2,200. Their employees, executives especially, encouraged by Milliken, have been and are key participants in community life.
Milliken moved his corporate offices to Spartanburg in 1954, producing an immeasurable economic impact in the Southeast that continues today. Known for their research and innovation, Milliken plants produce more than 19,000 chemical and textile products, and the company holds more than 2,300 U.S. patents.
Milliken was strongly anti-union and struggled mightily against foreign competition. Some of his mills had to close, but the company not only survived, it grew larger and stronger while other affected industries suffered.
Milon Christman, who retired to Gainesville in 1985 from Milliken in LaGrange, was at New Holland from 1946 to 1978. He speaks of Milliken's dedication to his employees, or "associates" as Milliken called them.
Christman had been transferred to New York, but he wanted to come back south. Through Milliken's efforts he landed a position in the Atlanta office. But he soon developed health problems that put him out of work for nine months. Yet Milliken kept updated on Christman's condition, retained his job and told him to take a two-week vacation with his wife after he recovered. "I even got a raise while I was sick," Christman said, illustrating Milliken's care for his employees.
He provided opportunities for many of his workers to grow, one route through Milliken University, a training facility in Spartanburg. He was a pioneer in video-conferencing and training.
Milliken is credited in part with the surge of the Republican Party in the South, supporting South Carolina candidates and persuading some Democrats, including the late Strom Thurmond, to switch parties. He served as a delegate to eight GOP conventions and helped persuade Barry Goldwater to run for president in 1964.
Education and the environment were among his first loves. He was big on trees, Christman said. The story goes that a large oak tree stood in the way of a construction project at New Holland. Milliken moved the building site to save the tree. The company planted thousands, perhaps millions, of trees around its property, many of which continue to grow in the New Holland area.
Landscaping is a priority at Milliken plants, witness the shaded grounds at New Holland and buildings in the Greenville-Spartanburg area. Milliken always purchased excess land when siting new plants to provide green spaces. The corporate headquarters in Spartanburg contains 600 acres of water features, trails and woodlands that provide a park for local residents.
Milliken was instrumental in the establishment of Greenville-Spartanburg Airport. You'd think you were approaching an arboretum as you drive through the tree-shaded, well-landscaped entrance. There is, of course, an arboretum elsewhere that Milliken founded through his Noble Tree Foundation, which encourages tree planting around the state.
He chaired the airport commission from 1959 till his death. Just a few weeks before he died at age 95, he presided over the announcement of Southwest Airlines's beginning routes through Greenville-Spartanburg.
Wofford College and Converse College in Spartanburg benefitted greatly from the Millikens' generosity, as did a day school that they founded. They contributed millions of dollars to those schools and to numerous charities. Milliken is said to have encouraged admission of black students at the private Wofford College amid resistance of some who thought the college would lose students as a result. He promised to make up whatever loss of revenue the college might experience.
Though he was known as a builder in industry, those who knew him also called him a builder of people and institutions. He had asked that the epitaph on his tombstone consist of just one word: "Builder."
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.