The Pittsburgh Foundation

Climbing Past AdversityMom's legacy lives at summits and on the ground through scholarships

Jim Holliday has drawn inspiration and strength from the memory of his mother, Mitzie, to scale the world’s largest mountains and establish a scholarship for young women.

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By Christian Pelusi
Christian Pelusi is a senior communications officer at The Pittsburgh Foundation.

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On the frigid face of the world’s tallest mountain, Jim Holliday persisted through a five-day climb over deep snow, bare rock and exhaustingly thin air to emerge from the final stretch victorious in reaching the peak.

At the top of 29,000-foot-high Mount Everest, he celebrated and posed for photos with his climbing team. 

But Holliday also intended to leave a photo behind. He reached into his expedition parka, pulled out an image of a smiling older woman, and added it to the mementos stacked around them — evidence of the human touch at the top of the world. 

Holliday’s gesture is a small one: a leave-behind picture of his mother, Mitzie, who died in 1998, to honor the remarkable life of a woman who overcame significant adversity as a single mother in Pittsburgh and who inspired her only child to become a successful engineer and mountaineer.

But what elevates that one act to the ranks of the profound is that Mitzie Holliday’s photo now rests at the top of dozens of mountains across the world. Holliday has made the leave-behind a continuing memorial throughout his 15-year climbing career.

“She’s there in the picture and she’s in my heart,” he says. “I want her to see what I see and experience what I experience.”

While he believes in the spiritual power of each mountain-top ritual, he also recognizes, as a Pittsburgh Foundation donor, that the best memorials are those that work to better the lives of others. That is the grounding for the Mitzie Holliday Memorial Fund that provides scholarship assistance for young women who are pursuing a degree — an opportunity his mother never had. 

Holliday, 61, cites his mother as the motivation behind his successful engineering career and becoming a world-class mountain­eer. According to 7Summits.com, he is only the 400th person in the world to master the Seven Summits — named for the highest mountain on each of the world’s continents. He has left a photo of his mother on five; two have prohibitions against leaving any material.

Holliday’s passion for mountaineering emerged during a wrenching period of grief and self-reflection after Mitzie’s death follow­ing complications from rheumatoid arthritis at age 66. He describes his life for the several years afterward as being “under a rock.” In the midst of that grieving, a co-worker invited him on a hike in February 2004. He had not done that type of outdoor activity since his teen years, and the experience rejuvenated him. Just seven months after the hike, he traveled to Tibet to climb in the Himalayas. 

There was a view on that trip that moved him — one peak elevated into the clouds — and when he reached the summit, he felt his mother’s presence. “I knew then that she was OK — that I didn’t have to worry about her — and it changed me.”

The experience spurred him to dedicate his personal life to taking on physical challenges and honor his mother in the challenges she surmounted.

In 1945, Mitzie Holliday was a ninth-grader when her father died, and she had to drop out of school, taking a job as a candy dipper at a Downtown Pittsburgh store to help support her mother and nine brothers and sisters.

Later, she endured a difficult marriage for years before summoning the courage to end it. Her ex-husband helped pay the mortgage of the family home in Overbrook but he was not present in his son’s life. With her lack of formal education, she struggled to make ends meet. 

“When you’re living it, you don’t realize it’s not the norm,” he says. “You make the best of it and work hard and hope that you can make it.”

Even as a child, Holliday realized that if their life together was going to improve, he would need a college degree. 

He made it to the University of Pittsburgh, and worked side jobs while studying for a bache­lor’s and a master’s degree in civil engineering. 

But through his university years, he worried about his mother, who had been diagnosed with the arthritis condition. After graduation in 1977, he convinced her to retire. “It was my turn to take care of her,” he says.

He was fortunate to quickly land a job as a structural analyst at Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in West Mifflin and has remained there his entire career. 

For the next two decades, Holliday devoted himself to her care. She required several hospital stays each year as the disease took its course. After her death, mountaineering enabled him to move forward and gain fresh perspective on the circumstances that had prevented her from living a fuller life. Holliday wanted to mark her life in a way that would help others take advan­tage of opportunities denied to her.

A living memorial was realized when Holliday’s financial advisor, Rob Rodgers from Hefren-Tillotson, introduced him to the Development team at The Pittsburgh Foundation. Holliday moved to create the donor-advised Mitzie Holliday Memorial Scholarship Fund in 2014. Its main purpose is to support women pursuing university degrees in science, tech­nology, engineering or mathematics, fields that he believes guarantee incomes allowing them full control of their lives. 

“Hopefully, they won’t have the difficult time in life that my mom had,” he says. “She was limited in what she could do because she didn’t have the education.” The fund, which he plans to contribute to each year so that it will be able to provide sizable awards, “is a helping hand, not a handout,” he says. “This would be my mother’s way of ‘teaching women to fish,’ so that they can find a way to a better life.”

Original story appeared in Forum Quarterly - Spring 2017