TC Business Hall of Fame: Meet the Inductees: Elnora Milliken and Julius Sleder
The Traverse City Business Hall of Fame celebrates the business leaders who have built, shared, influenced or grown Traverse City since the 1950s.
This annual series, now in its fifth year, melds past and present movers and shakers who’ve helped build Traverse City throughout the decades and who continue to raise the bar of commerce today.
In 2013, we introduced the charter class. This year, we induct two new members: The sales manager-turned-owner who grew an auto dealership into a major downtown anchor, and the arts enthusiast who brought professional music and theatre to the Grand Traverse region as founder of the Traverse Symphony Orchestra, originally known as the Northern Michigan Symphony Orchestra, and Old Town Playhouse, originally known as the Traverse City Civic Players.
Julius Sleder (1914-1999) was often in the driver’s seat. The longtime owner of Grand Traverse Auto, he was a business leader also known for leading the community he loved.
Sleder was a Traverse City native, graduating from Traverse City High School before attending and playing football for Michigan State University. He later served in the U.S Navy during World War II before returning to his hometown to put down roots and build the region during the post-war boom.
Sleder helped steer much economic and community development during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, joining with such other notables as Gerald Oleson, Les Biederman and former Governor William Milliken to plant the seeds and vision that shaped an earlier Traverse City into the regional hub it is today. During his lifetime, Sleder served in many leadership roles, including city commissioner, Traverse City mayor and 25 years as a Northwestern Michigan College trustee, as well as a major supporter of Interlochen Center for the Arts, NMC’s University Center, the Women’s Resource Center and many community endeavors. He was also a delegate to Michigan’s Constitutional Convention in 1961-62.
“Julius was an institution,” said Hal Van Sumeren, who served as president of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce from 1971 to 2002. “He operated an auto dealership downtown longer than anyone ever has…and was a huge advocate for downtown businesses.”
Although cars would drive much of his life, Sleder spent many early years working in his family’s business, Sleder’s Meat Market, before switching careers at age 48 and joining Grand Traverse Auto as its sales manager. It was a good match. Sleder became the owner within two years, a role he retained for the next three decades as he grew the dealership into a major downtown anchor.
Van Sumeren remembers when downtown Traverse City hosted three different dealers with Fords, Buicks and Chevrolets vying for consumer attention. Grand Traverse Auto, which originally opened in 1911, withstood the test of time, evolved for new markets and overcame competitive pressures under Sleder’s leadership. In 1997, at age 83, he steered the business into its next era when he relocated the dealership from downtown into the large, modern showroom where Fox Motors stands today.
Sleder is lauded for his business acumen and community vision, but is also remembered as an avid football fan – who regularly cheered from the stands in Traverse City and East Lansing – as well as easy camaraderie with everyone he met.
“Julius was a great story teller,” Van Sumeren said. “He always had something to say…and I always learned something when I listened.”
Sleder passed away in 1999 at age 85. He was preceded in death by his wife of 44 years, Dorris, and survived by two daughters, Mary Jo and Jayne.
The spotlight has shown on Elnora Milliken since she first lifted her violin bow with the Chisholm, Minnesota’s Range Symphony. She was a grade school student at the time, and the youngest member of the professional orchestra.
Milliken continues to make music and has been shining a light on the arts for decades. She is credited with bringing professional music and theatre to the Grand Traverse region as founder of the Traverse Symphony Orchestra, originally known as the Northern Michigan Symphony Orchestra, in 1951 and Old Town Playhouse, originally known as the Traverse City Civic Players, in 1960.
“The strength and pride for the arts in our community was developed over time due to the enthusiasm, vision and tireless efforts of Elnora Milliken,” said Traverse Symphony Orchestra executive director Krista Cooper.
“The foundation built by Elnora led to the sustained artistic strength of the cultural pillars of our community, including the Traverse Symphony Orchestra.”
Milliken’s devotion to music began as a young child growing up in a home filled with song. Her mother was a mezzo-soprano and her father played several instruments. Her own musical training in piano and violin, begun in early elementary school, continued through conservatory training in Minnesota and college and graduate studies at Northwestern University in Chicago. During that time, she also performed with the Dallas Symphony and Kalamazoo Symphony.
She married Dr. John Milliken in 1944 and moved to Traverse City in 1950 to raise their family. Shortly after arrival, she was surprised to learn there was no local symphony and then set about changing the situation. Milliken gathered volunteers, recruited musicians and raised money for a conductor. The Northern Michigan Symphony Orchestra performed its first concert on Dec. 21, 1952. Elnora Milliken was in the first row, playing her violin.
A similar story followed in April 1960 when Milliken gathered several Interlochen faculty and 40 local theatre buffs to stage the play, “You Can’t Take It with You” which introduced the Traverse City Civic Players and amateur theatre to the region.
During the decades, both organizations grew and flourished. Traverse Symphony Orchestra, now a professional orchestra, celebrated its 65th anniversary and is considered northern Michigan’s leading regional performing arts ensemble. Old Town Playhouse is well into its 57th season and also stands as the north’s leading community theatre. For decades, Milliken was an active hands-on volunteer and performer. She continues, today, as a key supporter for both organizations as well as an enthusiastic arts advocate for the region.
“Elnora saw the arts as a vital part of her life,” said Old Town Playhouse executive director Phil Murphy. “Her foresight, dedication and nurturance resulted in two exemplary pillars of a community that today prides itself on the people’s commitment to the arts. Her gift to us is the basis for our continuing gift of artistic reach and excellence for all who live, work and play here.”
See the 15 past inductees listed in the TC Business Hall of Fame since 2013 in the January issue on newsstands now.