Henry Hillman remembered for intellectual curiosity, moving Pittsburgh into future
About a week before Henry Hillman's death, Dr. Stanley Marks visited the billionaire businessman and philanthropist in the hospital.
Marks, who was friends with Hillman and is chairman of UPMC CancerCenter, was surprised when the ailing 98-year-old wanted to talk about immunotherapy research, recruitment of new researchers and who might be the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute's new director.
“I was literally startled that here's this 98-year-old man who's quite ill but yet these are things he's been thinking about,” Marks said.
Hillman died of heart failure Friday night at UPMC Shadyside, according to his family.
His nimble mind and unceasing interest in innovation drove his success in business and in philanthropy, people who knew him said Saturday. He and his wife, the late Elsie Hillman, helped spur Pittsburgh's medicine- and technology-driven revival while quietly contributing to a broad range of efforts to improve quality of life across the city, they said.
“They did a lot of work that helped bring Pittsburgh out of its long economic malaise,” said Maxwell King, president of The Pittsburgh Foundation.
Before the couple invested $10 million to help build Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside in 2002, UPMC oncologists were seeing patients in offices scattered around Oakland or in a trailer on the roof of Montefiore Hospital, Marks said.
The couple's initial investment helped build an internationally known center for treatment and research. The couple gave another $25 million in grants to help young researchers launch promising projects — which in turn helps the researchers qualify for National Institutes of Health funding that flows to Pittsburgh, Marks said. He estimated the grants have helped the cancer center bring in $90 million to $100 million in NIH funding.
Surgeons at the center perform advanced procedures to remove liver cancers and use robots to cut out pancreatic, thyroid and head and neck cancers. Researchers at the center have helped change melanoma from a death sentence to a manageable disease and have identified two of seven known viruses that cause cancer.
“There's this perception, which is real, that top cancer care occurs at the Hillman,” Marks said.
The Hillman Family Foundations have given $430 million to organizations and projects throughout the country since 1951, said David Roger, the organization's president. Roger estimated Hillman gave tens of millions of dollars more in personal contributions.
The organization includes 18 foundations, some of which are affiliated with Hillman's children and grandchildren in other parts of the country, Roger said. Hillman, whose net worth Forbes estimated at about $2.6 billion, preferred to contribute to local causes, Roger said.
Among Hillman's interests was harnessing technology to improve Pittsburgh's competitiveness with other cities, Roger said. A recent example was his investment in Traffic 21, a research institute at Carnegie Mellon University that aims to use new technology to improve transportation and traffic flows. The institute installed smart signals that adjust to traffic in real time and have reduced traffic backups by 25 percent at Baum Boulevard and Center Avenue and at Penn Circle, Roger said.
Hillman held key economic development posts in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, helping to develop Point State Park, Gateway Center and the Crosstown Expressway. He also helped develop affordable housing as director of nonprofit Action Housing in the 1960s.
“He was intellectually curious to a level that was almost unbelievable. He was interested in so many different things and often had in-depth knowledge of a number of topics,” Roger said.
The son of industrialist John Hartwell Hillman Jr. and Juliet Cummins Lea Hillman, Henry Hillman refocused his family business from coke and chemical production to Silicon Valley ventures, real estate and other diversified investments.
“I would say that in his work as a philanthropist, Mr. Hillman displayed many of the qualities that made him a success in business,” said Mark Nordenberg, chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh from 1995 to 2014. “He was careful about his philanthropic investments, wanting to size up both the individuals and the institutions to which he was making contributions and trying to measure their likely impact, particularly in terms of pushing Pittsburgh forward.”
Hillman's support for Pitt's Hillman Library starting in the 1960s helped make the library one of the most forward-looking in the country, enabling it to help digitize correspondence and paper records of former Sen. Arlen Specter, former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh, transplant pioneer Dr. Thomas Starzl and Pennsylvania Speaker of the House K. Leroy Irvis, Nordenberg said. The records help distinguish the library among its peers, he said.
Like others who knew Hillman, Nordenberg described his personality as modest, funny and curious.
“He had a terrific sense of humor,” Nordenberg said. “He was genuinely interested in other people. So, as important as he was, it was easy to connect with him on a human level.”
In addition to Carnegie Mellon and Pitt, Hillman made large donations to the Carnegie museums and other Pittsburgh cultural institutions.
Business investments in PPG Place — and the skating rink in the plaza outside the building — and in the Fifth Avenue development helped revitalize Pittsburgh's downtown, King said.
Efforts such as Traffic 21 and Hillman's other transportation initiatives make people's lives better in practical ways and could help the city manage its growth and momentum into the future, said Grant Oliphant, president of the Heinz Endowments Foundation.
“He's reflected his pride in Pittsburgh through philanthropy that I think we should all be incredibly grateful for,” Oliphant said.
Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.