The Pittsburgh Foundation

ELSIE HILLMAN: IN MEMORIAM, 1925-2015

Max King

By Maxwell King

President and CEO, The Pittsburgh Foundation

One of the things that attracts people to Pittsburgh--that brings young people here to work, that keeps people here who were born in the Pittsburgh region, that attracts companies to bring their business here, that convinces retirees to stay in the region--is the distinctive character of our place. 

You can go to a lot of places in America that seem . . . well, like a lot of other places in America; that just blend into a homogenous stretch of the urban and suburban. But not Pittsburgh. When you come here to live and work, or just for a visit, you know where you are. 

And you know what you get in the very particular Pittsburgh ethos. The modifiers that usually append to our town are:

Unpretentious, hard-working, direct, honest, caring, committed, community-focused, good-hearted and good-humored. And just downright full of the joy of a great engagement with life.

When you look up all those words in my dictionary, the definitions you read paint a picture: 

A picture of a very beautiful, wonderful, charming and powerful lady: Elsie Hillman. 

No one ever, in my experience here, better captured the Pittsburgh spirit than Elsie Hillman and her husband, Henry Hillman. When Elsie died last month, a beacon was dimmed. Dimmed, but not extinguished, because Elsie's sprit, her heart and her commitment, live on for all of us who remain.

And her dedication to her community never flagged. Never. Even in the last few months of her life, she continued to meet with people from the foundation community and the nonprofit community to see if there were ways in which her great depth of experience could be helpful.

I attended a meeting with David K. Roger, president of the Hillman Family Foundations, and others to talk about public media and civic engagement, two of the most important topics to Elsie. She sat comfortably in a chair, looking frail but elegant and beautiful, and frequently leaned forward to make an important point, particularly when it related to WQED, the community-based public-television station here that she loved and championed for decades.

Elsie also had a life-long commitment to her “political philanthropy.” Everyone knows that she was a devoted and masterful leader of the state and national Republican Party, but she wasn’t partisan. Her highest ambition was to see that smart people with integrity run for elected office and be effective public servants.

She distinguished herself, her party and her hometown in living her Pittsburgh values, especially in working to make the city more diverse and inclusive. It made a powerful impression in Pittsburgh’s white- and male-dominated power sectors that a wealthy, white Republican woman encouraged African Americans to run for office and sit on boards; or that she was linked arm-in-arm with other Pittsburgh women in public demonstrations favoring the Equal Rights Amendment and reproductive rights; or that in the early 1980s, when fear and discrimination ruled the AIDS epidemic, she purchased a home in Shadyside that became an informal hospice center for HIV/AIDS patients, and worked there as a volunteer. 

Her example remains a very powerful one, here in Pittsburgh and around the country.

When Elsie is memorialized at a special service here in Pittsburgh this Saturday, there will be great good humor, wonderful stories to be told, and much laughter and joy in the recollection of her life. And there will be tears--tears because we will all be so terribly aware that there has not been, nor will there be, another like her. 

She was--she is--greatly beloved. And she will be greatly missed by us all.

Maxwell King is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation