William Rea, civic leader and one of the Cultural District's creators, dies at 94

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William H. Rea, a real estate magnate who became H.J. "Jack" Heinz's key ally in conceiving and creating the Pittsburgh Cultural District as an engine for Downtown economic development, died yesterday while on a trip to Washington, D.C. He was 94.

The cause of death was a heart attack, said his son, Samuel Rea, who was with him on the trip.

Mr. Rea, of Stahlstown, was still an active board member at the Heinz Endowments, where he served for 29 years.

Scion of a prominent family, Mr. Rea became one of the most influential civic leaders of his era, leaving his mark on education, cultural institutions, community development and the foundation world.

As president of Oliver Tyrone Corp., the city's largest landlord in the 1970s, he knew Pittsburgh's commercial real estate market inside and out. He helped Mr. Heinz figure out where an arts district might do the most good and which buildings should be acquired at what price, and negotiated the deals quietly so as to avoid inflated prices.

Many of the buildings housed porn shops and massage parlors, businesses that had to be dislodged over a period of time.

"Bill liked to say that at one time, he and Jack Heinz were proprietors of the biggest red-light district in Pennsylvania," said Maxwell King, president of the Heinz Endowments.

"That's how Bill became involved with the Heinz Endowments and ended up on both boards," Mr. King said. "He was a great champion of that vision after Jack passed away."

Just last week, the Heinz Endowments honored Mr. Rea and his late wife, Ingrid, avid conservationists, with a $2 million grant for two positions at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and Powdermill Nature Reserve in Rector, Westmoreland County.

James Walton, chairman of the Vira I. Heinz Endowment, called Mr. Rea "a giant in shaping the history of Pittsburgh since World War II. He was one of the early leaders of so many of the region's most powerful institutions, especially the Allegheny Conference and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust."

"Bill Rea leaves us with a warm memory in our hearts and a gutsy, joyful attitude in our work," said Teresa Heinz in a statement.

Mr. Rea was born in Pittsburgh to a family with connections. His great uncle, Henry Robinson Rea, was married to industrialist Henry W. Oliver's daughter, Edith. His father, James Childs Rea, was general manager of Oliver Iron & Steel Co., and his mother, Julia Dodge Rea, was a transplanted socialite from New York.

The family lived on Woodland Road on what is now Chatham College. One of eight children, Mr. Rea attended Wightman School in Squirrel Hill for four years -- "until my father found out I couldn't multiply" and put him in Shady Side Academy, he told The Pittsburgh Press in 1966.

From there he studied history at Princeton University. In the depths of the Depression in 1934, he got his first job -- teaching high school at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, where his uncle, Bayard Dodge, was the president.

There he met his future wife, the former Ingrid Shellabarger, who was visiting her aunt at the school. The couple wed in 1936 and had six children. The marriage endured until her death in 2003.

Mr. Rea worked for Edgewater Steel Co. in Oakmont and W.R. Grace & Co., a steamship line. He served in the Navy from 1942 to 1945, and was a radar officer on the battleship USS Idaho when Japan signed the surrender on the nearby USS Missouri.

After the war, he returned to Pittsburgh to work for the Oliver Estate. Ten years later, he became president of Oliver Tyrone Corp., owner of the Oliver Building on Smithfield Street.

Mr. Rea was at the helm during a boom period in the 1960s when the company built One Oliver Plaza at Sixth Avenue and Wood Street. Other developments were Two Oliver Plaza, the 300 Sixth Avenue Building, and properties in Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Niagara Falls. When the original company divested its portfolio in 1976, its assets were estimated at $50 million.

Mr. Rea was a longtime member of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. According to former director Robert Pease, Mr. Rea championed minority training and employment programs in the 1960s and, with steel collapsing in the 1980s, he pushed for investment in small business and helped create Three Rivers Employment Service, a private nonprofit corporation that still exists.

Mr. Rea also was active in education circles. He was a trustee at the University of Pittsburgh and served as board chairman from 1967 to 1978. Suzy Broadhurst, vice chair of the Pitt board, said he continued to attend board meetings regularly until about a year ago.

"Bill always asked good questions," she said. "He was incredibly sharp. He's one of those people you'd like to grow up to be like."

Mr. Rea served on the Pittsburgh school board from 1953 to 1970 and was president from 1959 to 1966. He took some heat for his positions against busing students to achieve racial integration, and also for opposing unionized teachers. But he was successful in efforts to get more money for city schools, and worked to change the funding formula to recognize special circumstances in big-city school systems.

In addition to his son Samuel, of Arlington, Va., Mr. Rea is survived by four daughters, Ingrid Rea Warren of Camden, Maine, Marian Height of Santa Fe, N.M., Julia Rea Diamond of Lake Oswego, Ore., and Vicky Rea Edgerly of Winter Harbor, Maine; and eight grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by McCracken Funeral Home in Ligonier.

Staff writers Joyce Gannon and Eleanor Chute contributed. Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.


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