Remembering Alfred "Burr" Wishart Jr.
Alfred "Burr" Wishart
(Dec. 21, 1931 - April 20, 2023)
It is with great sadness that we learned Alfred “Burr” Wishart Jr., the longest serving leader of The Pittsburgh Foundation, died Thursday, April 20, in his home in Vero Beach, Florida, at age 91. Burr was a force for good who demonstrated how community philanthropy could serve as a unifying force and a lever for transformational change. From 1970-2001, he shepherded the Foundation through tremendous political and social change, enlisting donor support and focusing the Foundation’s attention on systemic racism and poverty—issues that remain at the very core of our mission and vision today.
Under Burr’s stewardship, more than 800 charitable funds were created at the Foundation and grants each year topped $30 million. He also played an instrumental role in the evolution of downtown from a red-light district to a thriving cultural center. He fostered partnerships with numerous community development corporations to ensure that residents had a say in the future of their neighborhoods. He was also instrumental in establishing the Multicultural Arts Initiative to support Black artists, which later evolved into the Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh program, which thrives at our Foundation today.
Burr’s methods and manner, including his commanding baritone, inspired trust. A Presbyterian minister, he was guided by an unshakeable faith in God and respect for all people. He will be remembered always for his integrity, and for his bold vision for a connected and giving community.
We send our condolences to the family, including his wife, Barbara; his children Kathryn A. Disco (Mark B. Disco), Craig C. Wishart and Scott S. Wishart; grandchildren Garrett M. Disco (Candace Disco), Connor S. Disco and LeAnne C. Disco, and two great grandsons, Daniel G. Disco and Jesse E. Disco. In lieu of flowers, the family asks for contributions to the Alfred W. Wishart Jr. Fund at The Pittsburgh Foundation.
We asked those who knew Burr and his impact best to offer their remembrances of him. Their reflections are included below.
- Lisa Schroeder
- “Burr Wishart was both a friend and mentor. During our friendship, he gave one of the most elegant sermons in Harrisburg to then-Gov. Dick Thornburgh. That sermon persuaded the governor to release $3 million, which was matched by local philanthropy resulting in the construction of today’s Manchester Bidwell Center. That center has been replicated in multiple Pennsylvania cities and has become iconic in representing what Burr Wishart was all about. I am honored to call him friend and he will be sorely missed.” – William E. Strickland Jr.
- “Being invited to serve on The Pittsburgh Foundation Board was one of the most important and greatest learning experiences of my life with Burr as president, Bill Copeland as chair and Freida Shapira as co-chair and friends. We were entrusted with making a difference in the lives of our community and, most importantly, for our friends and neighbors who were underserved, whose voices might otherwise go unheard. Burr, with his amazing staff, brought those voices to our table. He was a visionary, highly respected and regarded by the corporate community, the faith community, educators, researchers, the medical community, those in the arts, and, most importantly, those most vulnerable. Burr insisted that we understand the pain of those in need; he insisted upon diversity in every grant request we reviewed. His vision was of a city that embraced and supported all, and he invited the community to be philanthropists—from those who had money to those who worked every day to support their families. We were gratified and touched by the enthusiastic and generous response to Burr’s invitation to give. Burr was genuine. He was kind, thoughtful to a fault, but always pushing us to think beyond to make Pittsburgh an inclusive and vibrant community.“ Mary Lou McLaughlin, Pittsburgh Foundation Board member, 1998-2013, and currently an emeriti board member.
- “Burr’s legacy, in part, lies with the continuity of The Pittsburgh Foundation’s long-term commitment to reducing poverty and embracing racial equity. Another hallmark was his belief that to have impact through our grantmaking, because our endowment was relatively small at the time, the Foundation needed to partner with city and county governments. A major contribution was the creation of the Human Services Investment Fund at the Foundation by a dozen other foundations. The new director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services used this funding to create a data warehouse to track service outcomes by its Area Agency on Aging and the Offices of Behavioral Health; Children, Youth and Families; Community Services; and Intellectual Disabilities. DHS has received national attention and awards for how it integrates data and uses it to improve the safety and well-being of its recipients. Burr treated his staff as partners in reimagining the possibilities of what a community foundation could contribute to improving the lives of Pittsburgh area residents. He was a kind, compassionate and thoughtful leader." – Jane Downing, senior program officer at the Foundation, 1994 to the present.
- “I met Burr Wishart through Elmer Tropman, founder of what is now The Forbes Funds. At that time Burr was a legend in Pittsburgh’s philanthropic community, having steered The Pittsburgh Foundation through a period of astonishing growth. Candidly, I was actually a bit intimidated by Burr and was quite surprised when he called me out of the blue to ask if I would lead The Forbes Funds through a period of transition. A generous leave of absence from The University of Pittsburgh allowed me to accept Burr’s offer. Immediately my feelings of intimidation melted away as Burr revealed himself to be an incredibly warm and caring human being and, for me, a wise teacher who graciously shared his wisdom and patiently guided me through the grant-making process about which I knew absolutely nothing. In regular meetings in his office, he would gently pose deceptively simple questions like: ‘What will the grant seeking organization accomplish with this grant? Why is that outcome important to them? How did they get to where they are now and what brought them to us? Who is on their board?’ I will always be grateful to Burr Wishart for his kindness as well as his wisdom.” – Kevin Kearns, Forbes Funds President, 2000-2003.
- “What was most remarkable to me about Burr was his ability to find the right words at exactly the right time. On September 11, 2001, the offices of The Pittsburgh Foundation were on the 30th floor of One PPG Place, one of the tallest buildings in downtown Pittsburgh. Like everyone across the country, we were watching the events unfold in real time. Then we heard about the plane that was still unaccounted for and thought to be flying over Pennsylvania. With only a few staff members still on the floor, we met quite serendipitously at the elevator banks. Burr asked if we would pray. No one hesitated, we joined hands, there were maybe less than 10 of us. I don’t remember what Burr said, but I remember it being exactly the right words for the moment – of comfort, of safety, and of peace. And then we all left the office to a world that was forever changed. I don’t know that many leaders would pull their staff together like that, would feel moved to share a prayer, or be able to find the right words to offer comfort at a time of such high tension. Burr demonstrated how language and person to person conversation can have a real impact, effect change and help build community.” - Maureen Mahoney Hill, Director of Development, New Funds, Sept. 2000 to Nov. 2004.
- “I worked with Burr at The Pittsburgh Foundation in the 90s. At the beginning of our time together he said, “Raise money for present and future residents of the county, who have less than us. People who struggle every day to enjoy all the things we, too often, take for granted.” In his Presbyterian minister manner, he set the tone for kindness and giving for all in this community. The idea was simple. It wasn’t easy. Thank you, Burr for pointing us in the right direction." Jay T. Carson, Pittsburgh Foundation Vice President of Development, 1997-2001.
- “I was privileged to work with Burr for eight years at The Pittsburgh Foundation, starting in 1993 when he hired me as CFO. At the time, our primary task was to transition away from sharing staff with The Heinz Endowments, and, along with the legendary Gerri Kay, and Hetty McGinnis, we were the managerial staff of the foundation. Burr’s management style was to communicate the mission and let you build the necessary infrastructure to accomplish that mission. He always treated us as partners in this endeavor. Burr was already a leader in the community foundation field, and that helped my personal transition from the corporate world into a deep involvement in the field. Lastly, Burr had a great partnership with our board chair and vice chair at that time, Bill Copeland, and Frieda Shapira, two great leaders. The leadership and energy provided by this group helped built the path to the respected institution that the Foundation is today.” – Tom Hay, Foundation CFO from 1993 to 2008.
Burr's Education and Career
Burr received his bachelor’s degree from Wooster College in 1953 and a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in 1956. He earned honorary doctorate degrees from Waynesburg University in 1976 and Washington and Jefferson College in 1983.
He served as assistant minister at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh from 1956- 1960 and later as senior minister at Arlington Avenue Presbyterian Church in East Orange, New Jersey, from 1961-1970. Burr was executive director at the Howard Heinz Endowment from 1970-1992 and served concurrently as executive director of the Vira I. Heinz Endowment from 1982-1985. He was secretary of the H.J. II Charitable and Family Trust from 1970- 1980 and executive secretary of the Pitcairn-Crabbe Foundation in Pittsburgh beginning in 1970. He led The Pittsburgh Foundation as CEO from 1970-2001. Burr also enjoyed tennis, golf, squash, shooting and fishing.