The Pittsburgh Foundation

In memoriam: Henry Hillman—1918-2017

Max King

By Maxwell King

President and CEO, The Pittsburgh Foundation

Henry Hillman was adventurous as an entrepreneur and a genius in the development of his business interests and his philanthropy. But he kept a low-key, unpretentious profile – in the same mold as Dan Rooney and Fred Rogers – and often ceded the public spotlight to his wife, Elsie Hillman. The two of them (Elsie died in 2015) provided an extraordinary level of leadership for their community.

He was, among those who worked with and socialized with him, a dashing and charming figure who loved the adventure of pursuing the next big idea. The goal was not so much the idea itself as what it might do to advance society. He was one of the earliest entrepreneurs in America to understand and invest in the potential of technology. 

Success for the Hillmans, though, was measured most in the wealth being re-invested in the community to enable others to do well.

Long before it was the fashionable thing to do in the field, Henry treated charitable opportunities as a venture investor looking at a business opportunity. He placed very big bets, and his money went on the table only after painstaking investigation and exhaustive research. He was a believer in the power of science – especially in the areas of medicine and technology. And he trusted local academic institutions, including the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, to deliver on those investments.

It is remarkable to me that well into his 90s, whether focused on business, philanthropy or politics, Henry was a committed futurist. At a dinner my wife, Peggy and I had for him along with a few others, the conversation slipped into Pittsburgh’s past glories. No doubt, Henry would have been lauded for leading it, but instead, he was, at 96, asking questions about what was coming around the bend. “Where will Pittsburgh be in the next decade with transportation? What about housing? What’s the next technology opportunity?” asked the man known for reporting out the latest developments from his Apple watch or his I-Pad.

All of the questions reveal something else that Henry had to a remarkable degree. He was a powerful intellectual.

Henry loved to ponder. He was a thinker who enjoyed drinking from a fire hose of information and data – and then making sense of it all with the most powerful of intellects. Armed with the information he had, he would analyze and strategize and then use it to best his peers in picking opportunities for investment.

He certainly did it in philanthropy. While many others scattered their charitable dollars across scores of causes, Henry placed big wagers, making a $10 million investment in the Hillman Cancer Center or making multi-million-dollar technology plays  at UPMC or Carnegie Mellon University or the University of Pittsburgh.

Henry Hillman was always thinking, always focused on the future, and his intellect was always relentlessly ranging around the firmament, looking for opportunities to help strengthen and enrich the community he loved as well as his businesses. He was the quintessential, cerebral American philanthropist and all of Pittsburgh is so much the better for it.