Roger Milliken, Conservative Tycoon, Dies at 95
Published: December 31, 2010
Roger Milliken, a South Carolina textile magnate who supported conservative causes and was instrumental in building the state into a bastion of the Republican Party, died Thursday in Spartanburg, S.C. He was 95.
United Press International
Mr. Milliken, a billionaire whose Milliken & Company was based in Spartanburg and was one of the largest textile and chemical firms in the nation, manufactured materials used in products as varied as flame-resistant gear for firefighters and the balloons in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. One of his products gives Jell-O pudding its smooth creaminess.
He was a generous supporter of conservative Republicans and an early backer of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 run for president.
Beginning in the 1960s, Mr. Milliken provided the financial and intellectual muscle that helped the Republican Party come to dominate politics in South Carolina, which had been a Democratic Party preserve since Reconstruction.
He maintained close ties with a generation of conservative Republican senators who for decades dominated Southern politics, including Jesse Helms of North Carolina and South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, whom Mr. Milliken is sometimes credited with helping to persuade to switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party in 1964.
Mr. Milliken was a Republican delegate to eight national conventions, most recently in 1984. In 2008, he supported Duncan L. Hunter, a California congressman, for the Republican presidential nomination.
Mr. Milliken, who was born in New York City on Oct. 24, 1915, took over the family’s textile business in 1947 after the death of his father, Gerrish. The company was co-founded by his grandfather Seth Milliken in 1865.
Mr. Milliken studied French history at Yale University and was known for quoting economic theorists like Adam Smith and Friedrich List, and for warning about what he regarded as the link between nations that allowed their manufacturing bases to decline and the demise of those nations.
Mr. Milliken, who was a vocal opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement, was seen toward the end of his life as an almost quixotic figure as he sought to protect South Carolina’s textile industry from lower-priced foreign competitors.
While other American textile mills have succumbed to international competition during the past 25 years or so, the focus of Mr. Milliken’s company on innovation helped it prosper. The company has produced more than 2,000 patents and developed the largest textile research center in the world, according to the company’s Web site.
One of the ways Mr. Milliken kept costs down was by aggressively fighting efforts to unionize his workers.
In 1956, he closed a textile mill in Darlington, S.C., after workers there voted to form a union. He was sued by the employees, and after a lengthy court battle he was ordered to pay a $5 million settlement.
Mr. Milliken pushed for racial integration at Wofford College in Spartanburg in the 1960s, volunteering to support the college financially if its acceptance of black students drove other financial backers away. The college eventually integrated voluntarily.
He was also a supporter of the arts and became well known in Spartanburg for his love of trees, friends said. In 1999, he established the Noble Tree Foundation to encourage the planting of trees in the area, particularly in rundown neighborhoods.
Mr. Milliken also gave millions of dollars to local educational institutions, including Wofford College and Converse College, also in Spartanburg.
Mr. Milliken’s wife of 55 years, Justine Van Rensselaer Hooper, died in 2003. He is survived by two daughters, Justine Russell and Nancy Milliken; three sons, Roger Jr., David and Weston; and nine grandchildren.