Dan Rooney and Henry Hillman ‘exemplified’ Pittsburgh
April 16, 2017 12:00 AM
Henry and Elsie Hillman, left, and Dan and Pat Rooney, right, make an appearance for the American Ireland Fund in 2004.
Dan Rooney and Henry Hillman
Bob Donaldson / Post-Gazette
From left, former Steelers Mike Wagner and Franco Harris, along with Patricia and Dan Rooney, greet Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik following Chuck Noll's funeral at St. Paul Cathedral in 2014.
By Sean D. Hamill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
They were both sons of successful fathers who started their family fortunes from scratch only to proudly watch as the sons outdid them, taking their visions to new heights.
They also were both fiercely proud Pittsburghers who despite their astounding financial success — and, for a time, the city’s struggles — chose to stay and raise their families and businesses here. All the while dedicating much of their wealth to helping Pittsburghers in ways large and small, publicly and privately.
But perhaps most important, say those who knew them both well, the deaths of Dan Rooney and Henry Hillman coming just a day apart are a reminder of “a particular Pittsburgh characteristic,” said Maxwell King, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation.
“The things Dan and Henry accomplished are beyond the imaginations of most of us,” Mr. King said. “But they remained unaffected by their success. Like Fred Rogers who died 14 years ago, they were always thoughtful and respectful with anyone in the community.”
“There’s just a particular characteristic of Pittsburgh that’s strong community-oriented and modest and unpretentious, and these two men exemplified that character,” he said. “And that’s a big loss for our community. I don’t know if subsequent generations will have that same nature, that concern and giving nature.”
Andrew Masich, president and CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, said their passing is “truly the end of an era.”
“That was in part because both were touched by World War II, and that era shaped them and the city, when we were the ‘Arsenal of Democracy,’ ” he said. “Dan led scrap drives on the North Side as a Junior Commando and Henry trained to fly planes. And that experience during the war really did shape them and their commitment to the city and the country.”
As Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto put it: “They were both patriarchs. And though they both came from a different time and a different generation, they became leaders in the 21st century Pittsburgh.”
The two men came from decidedly different upbringings.
Both men’s fathers were notably tough, but took somewhat different paths to their fortunes. In his book, “Ruanaidh: The Story of Art Rooney and His Clan,” Art Rooney Jr., Dan’s brother, wrote that their father, raising his family on the North Side, famously made at least some of his fortune illegally — selling alcohol and running gambling operations during Prohibition as well as illegal slot machines. Meanwhile, Mr. Hillman’s father, Hart, living in the East End, built an industrial company tied to Pittsburgh’s image of steel and coal.
Mr. Rooney went to parochial institutions — North Catholic High School and Duquesne University — while Mr. Hillman attended elite private schools — Shady Side Academy and Princeton University.
And yet, both men ended up with similar perspectives about family — both men were married to their wives for more than 60 years — the family businesses — they had to change and remake them to survive and thrive — and their hometown — why leave when you love where you are?
“I think what they both did was capitalize on the best parts of what their fathers had given them,” said Sy Holzer, PNC executive vice president, who was friends to both men.
It was no mistake that the Pittsburgh Steelers, which Art Rooney Sr. started in 1933 when Dan Rooney was a year old, did not become champions until after Dan Rooney took over the team’s operation in the late 1960s.
“For The Chief [Art Sr.] the Steelers was a labor of love,” Mr. Holzer said. “And for Dan, it was a business.”
When Mr. Hillman took over his father’s old-line business, he transformed it into an investment and technology company that is credited with helping fund Silicon Valley, among other ventures.
“Henry on the other hand took this valuable entity he was given and changed it tremendously,” Mr. Holzer said. “Because Henry was always about the future.”
Despite that success, or maybe because of it, neither man, even in the weeks and months before they died — Mr. Rooney at 84, and Mr. Hillman at 98 — ever truly left their family businesses.
“I just spoke to Dan a couple weeks ago and he was talking about the [upcoming NFL] draft,” said Jim Rohr, former PNC chairman. “And I talked with Henry a couple months ago and he was talking about investing in new medical technology.”
Though they ran very different types of businesses and came from very different backgrounds, the two men knew each other well, well enough that a decade ago Mr. Rooney got Mr. Hillman to agree to let him honor Mr. Hillman and his late wife Elsie at the American Ireland Fund dinner.
“Everyone knew Henry did not like public honors,” Mr. Holzer said. “He accepted because it was coming from Dan.”
Mark Nordenberg, chancellor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, who helped arrange contributions to the university from both families over the years, said it was clear that “there was this feeling of respect between them that flowed back and forth.”
Part of that was a shared understanding of that Pittsburgh trait of not having too much “swagger,” Mr. King said, because “in Pittsburgh you got respect not because of where you went to school, but how hard you work.”
For both men, that meant working hard at giving, as well as running their businesses. And it was all the better if the giving was done without public notice.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said both families regularly, quietly supported community projects without allowing their names to be used.
“Henry would say, ‘We want to help, but don’t tell them we’re involved,’ ” he said, recalling recent help paying for trail system improvements in the county parks, which went unpublicized, among other contributions both families made like that over the years.
Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments, said while the timing of their deaths is purely coincidental, the question their passing raises “is absolutely worth asking.”
“They both cared about the community deeply and they gave back to it,” he said. “The question is, will we all rise up and do the same? Will we care as much as they did?”
Sean D. Hamill: email@example.com or 412-263-2579 or Twitter: @SeanDHamill
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