Obituary: Elsie Hillman, philanthropist and GOP pillar, dies at 89
August 4, 2015 11:38 PM
Robin Rombach/Pittsburgh Press
Barbara Bush, right, once described Elsie Hillman as ''a cross between Teddy Roosevelt and Auntie Mame."
Elsie Hillman was member of the Republican National Committee from 1978 to 1996.
Elsie Hillman reacts as members of the Mendelssohn Choir sing a song to her while she stands on stage with Gov. Tom Ridge, left, and former President George H.W. Bush at the Pittsburgh Hilton and Towers in 1996.
By Dan Majors / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Elsie Hilliard Hillman cared.
Her causes came in all sizes, from underwriting a public ice-skating rink in PPG Plaza to the millions of dollars that she and her husband, the industrialist Henry Hillman, donated to the fight against cancer.
A philanthropist and political activist whose lifetime of civic devotion made her a beloved figure in Western Pennsylvania and beyond, Mrs. Hillman died Tuesday morning of complications of old age at Shadyside Hospital. She was 89.
Jim Roddey reflects on Elsie Hillman's life
Allegheny County Republican Party chairman Jim Roddey talks about Elsie Hillman's life and what she meant to everyone. (Video by Rebecca Droke; 8/5/2015)
Once described as “the Grand Duchess of the Pennsylvania Republican Party,” Mrs. Hillman approached politics from the perspective of promoting social causes and was instrumental in the election of centrist politicians on the local, state and national level, her favorite campaign being that of her friend, former President George H.W. Bush.
Mr. Bush, whom Mrs. Hillman helped get elected in 1988, described Mrs. Hillman to the Post-Gazette as “a wonderful gal” and praised her for being “amazingly active in politics and her community” and for being “always concerned about making a contribution.”
Mr. Bush’s wife, Barbara, once described Mrs. Hillman as “a cross between Teddy Roosevelt and Auntie Mame.”
“Elsie Hillman, our dear friend, broke the mold,” Mr. Bush said. “She was full of wisdom, full of energy and full of humor. She was a tireless political activist, and a wonderful, caring human being. I was blessed to have her on my side. Barbara and I loved her.”
As chairwoman of the state GOP and a member of the Republican National Committee from 1978 to 1996, Mrs. Hillman also lent instrumental support to Republican governors William Scranton, Dick Thornburgh and Tom Ridge, senators John Heinz and Arlen Specter, and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.
Yet her circle of influence was not limited to Republicans. Labor leaders considered her a friend of the working class. She counted longtime Allegheny County Commissioner Tom Foerster and Pittsburgh Mayors Tom Murphy and Sophie Masloff, all Democrats, among her closest friends. Democratic Mayor Joseph Barr, who served from 1959 to 1970, once told Mr. Foerster, “Anytime you need help of any kind, you go see Elsie.”
Mrs. Hillman rose from a volunteer in the 14th Ward in Squirrel Hill to the sanctum of Republican national decision-makers, always with the purpose of helping people, particularly women and minorities.
Still, her heart wasn’t entirely dedicated to the public.
“Elsie was happiest when surrounded by her family,” said Mr. Hillman, the billionaire to whom she was married for 70 years. “Every person she ever met, she made to feel as though they were her best friend and that she would do anything for them, but her family always came first in her heart.”
With unbridled enthusiasm and good humor, Mrs. Hillman balanced her power and wealth with touches of common life. She drove herself around in cars ordinary except for the elephant hood ornament. When giving tens of thousands of dollars to state candidates, she listed her occupation as '“housewife.”
Born in Fox Chapel, she was the daughter of a steel executive who was a die-hard, anti-Roosevelt Republican. She attended The Ellis School, an independent, all-girls, college-prep school in Shadyside, and took a secretarial course when she was 14. “I didn’t do very well,” she admitted decades later.
A self-confessed “high-spirited” student who could get into spots of trouble, she then attended the Ethel Walker School in Connecticut and Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., where she studied piano and voice.
In 1945, at the age of 19, she married Mr. Hillman, a Navy pilot stationed in Brooklyn. The couple lived in New York and Texas before returning to Pittsburgh after World War II.
Her passion for politics was sparked during the Eisenhower administration of the 1950s. She soon caught the eye of Republican Sen. Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, who recognized her gift for politics and guided her toward opportunities with growing influence, including her election as Allegheny County Republican Party chairwoman in 1967.
She recognized good people and knew how to promote them, even if they were wary of the idea, cajoling hand-picked prospects including Mr. Heinz and Mr. Thornburgh into high-profile positions.
Her favorite campaign, she said, was in 1988, when she was chair of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party, championing the election of Mr. Bush, who won the state by a slim margin over Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Mrs. Hillman, who might have had a pick of positions in the Bush government, was happy to dance at the president’s inaugural ball in Washington, D.C., then return to her home in Pittsburgh.
Though she would never run for public office, she worked quietly behind the scenes. Throughout the 1960s, Mrs. Hillman was expressing concern about the lack of African-American voices in politics — particularly in the Republican Party. She connected representatives of Pittsburgh’s black community to chief executive officers of major corporations and expanded political outreach beyond the tradition of the black churches.
“You didn’t know if she was a Democrat or a Republican,” said Jackie Dixon, an African-American woman from Fox Chapel who was elected to the Carlow University Board of Trustees with Mrs. Hillman’s support. “She was a truthful, good-hearted person, and you have to respect people who stand for principles.”
The pull of Mrs. Hillman’s politics was driven by her push for people. During the 1980s, when the stigma of AIDS had many people scared beyond caring, she delivered food baskets to dying victims and stayed to eat with them. She established the Republican Future Fund to promote centrist policies and female candidates to state office. And she was a staunch supporter of reproductive rights, a position that frequently caused friction in the party.
“While we are traditionally the party of limited government intrusion and personal responsibility, the social extremist wing of the Republican Party has taken over and made abolishing choice a focus for the party,” she complained in a 2009 letter to the Post-Gazette.
“Elsie was a wonderful woman who cared deeply about empowering women and improving their lives,” said Kimberlee Evert, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania. “She was a champion for women’s rights and stood behind this belief in her political work and in the community. She truly understood how important it was for women to be able to control their fertility and make their own reproductive health care decisions.”
She loved to laugh. In 2001, dressed as Mrs. Claus, she and her husband dedicated the ice rink at Downtown’s PPG Place, and in the summer of 2003, they made sure that children were no longer prohibited from playing in the fountain waters. Her support of WQED, which annually bestows its “Elsie Award,” included appearances in skits with actor Michael Keaton, who once worked for the station.
But she was serious about the fight against cancer.
“Elsie represented the highest ideals of philanthropy and the civic spirit that has been central to Pittsburgh’s economic success,” Jeffrey Romoff, UPMC president and CEO, and UPMC board chairman Nicholas Beckwith said in a statement. “Nowhere was that more evident than in the opening of the Hillman Cancer Center in 2002, thanks to the Hillmans’ $10 million lead gift for an institution that has become one of the leading cancer centers in the world.”
“Pittsburgh [has] lost one of its true giants,” said Grant Oliphant, president of the Heinz Endowments. “Elsie Hillman defined the very essence of what it means to be a great civic leader in Pittsburgh.”
Former Gov. Tom Corbett, who was among 300 people at a May 2012 salute to Mrs. Hillman at the University of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, said she “created a generation of leaders … with a clear set of goals and the capacity to not only get along with very different people but to show those people how to get along with each other. That’s politics at its purest.”
Terry Miller, director of the university’s Institute of Politics, hailed Mrs. Hillman for the time, effort, money and influence she invested in people and causes — including rights for women, minorities and gays — often when the stands were not popular.
But they were more than stands. They were movements that Mrs. Hillman had a hand in setting in motion.
While Mrs. Hillman remained dedicated to her convictions, she watched with dismay as her party shifted to the right, with hard-line stands on the Equal Rights Amendment, gay rights and abortion.
In the 1990s, her political focus was more Pennsylvania-oriented as she co-chaired the campaigns of Mr. Ridge, who was running for re-election as governor, and Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey. In the early years of the 21st century, she helped create the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University and Run Baby Run, a bipartisan political action committee supporting women candidates for the state Legislature.
“The time came for me to stop being the Republican National committeewoman,” she said earlier this year. “I had been there too long. It had been more than 20 years or something, and it was time to retire.”
Her social dedication, however, would not wane as she continued working and donating.
Former Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg hosted the 2012 salute to Mrs. Hillman, at which the university introduced the Elsie Hilliard Hillman Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Public Service.
“What drew her to politics is the same thing that also has pulled her into so many other initiatives: the desire to contribute to the greater good,” Mr. Nordenberg said.
“There’s a brand established with the [Hillman name],” Mr. Ridge said at the Pitt event. “Caring, decent people who love their community.”
Mrs. Hillman accepted the recognition with her signature humility.
“How simple my efforts were,” she said amid thanks to all who had participated in the event. “Politics really was not a solution, but it brought me an opportunity.”
Mrs. Hillman was chair of the Elsie H. Hillman Foundation; a trustee of the Hillman Family Foundations; co-chair of the UPCI and UPMC CancerCenter Council; and served as a board member of WQED, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Hill House Association and director emeritus of several more organizations and universities. She was the recipient of eight honorary degrees and countless honors over the course of her life, including being named a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania.
She is survived by her husband, four children — Juliet Lea Hillman Simonds, Audrey Hillman Fisher, Henry L. Hillman Jr. and William Talbott Hillman — nine grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
The funeral will be private and for the family only. A community memorial service to celebrate her life is planned for 10:30 a.m. Sept. 19 at Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside.
Dan Majors: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1456. Staff writer Madasyn Czebiniak contributed.
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