Philanthropist and one-time GOP powerhouse Elsie Hillman dies at 89
Philanthropist Elsie Hillman, a Republican matriarch who rubbed shoulders with presidents and politicos but could just as easily befriend doormen and waiters, died Tuesday in Pittsburgh.
Despite her enormous wealth and influence, she loved simple things: Kentucky Fried Chicken, costume jewelry, driving her own car and calling people “dearie,” even a president of the United States. A generous woman with a hearty laugh and indomitable spirit, she pushed for equal rights for blacks and women beginning in the 1950s, encouraging them to run for office, and later advocated for gay rights and women's reproductive rights.
“Everything needs a real doer — in other words, it needs a passionate person, somebody who is willing to do anything for the thing that they are passionate about,” she told Robin Beckham, editor of the online Pittsburgh Urban Media, in a 2013 interview.
Mrs. Hillman, the wife of industrialist Henry Hillman of Squirrel Hill, died of heart failure in UPMC Shadyside. She was 89.
“Elsie was happiest when surrounded by her family,” her husband said. “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.”
The family plans a private funeral and a public memorial service at 10:30 a.m. Sept. 19 in Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh's Shadyside neighborhood.
Mrs. Hillman was a Republican national committeewoman from 1975 to 1996, though she grew disenchanted when the party's conservatives became more dominant.
She was “the last of a breed,” someone who “made politics fun,” said former Lt. Gov. Bill Scranton, a Scranton Republican.
“She was enthusiastic when it wasn't cool to be a Republican,” said Scranton, who as the son of a governor knew her “since I was in short pants.” Mrs. Hillman, he said, “was uninhibited in her beliefs. Whatever her ideals were, she lived them.”
At the height of her involvement in politics, she had “the unique ability to talk to the president of the United States in the morning and to talk to the parking lot attendant in the afternoon and convince both of them she's their best friend,” said Allegheny County Republican Committee Chairman Jim Roddey.
A parking lot attendant, Roddey recalled, once told Mrs. Hillman, “‘I really appreciate your talking to me. After all, I'm only a parking lot attendant.' And she said, ‘Oh, no. You are an automotive placement engineer.'”
Former President George H.W. Bush, whom Mrs. Hillman supported, told the Tribune-Review the country lost “one of the brightest points of light and finest political activists.”
A “force of nature,” Bush said, Mrs. Hillman “had the biggest, most caring heart. She seemed to know everyone. And she had respect and admiration even from those with whom she did not always agree on issues.”
The Hillmans celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary on May 12 at the Pittsburgh Golf Club. He attended, but she was hospitalized and spoke by closed-circuit TV, guests said. Seated in a wingback chair, with flowers next to her, she dressed up her blue silk outfit with jewelry, and only a gauze bandage on her wrist suggested she was in a hospital room.
“After her remarks, she told everyone to go to the bar, enjoy the buffet and spend Henry's money wildly,” one guest recalled.
Mrs. Hillman's death “marks the end of an era in American politics, and our nation is the poorer for this loss,” said Dick Thornburgh, former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. attorney general. “Elsie was a true patriot, devoted to the principles that made our political system work for all of our citizens.”
Mrs. Hillman graduated from the Ellis School, the Ethel Walker School and studied voice and piano at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J. She demonstrated her free spirit at Ellis by riding around the school with her boyfriend on a motorcycle, according to “Never a Spectator: The Political Life of Elsie Hillman,” a book by Kathy McCauley.
She fell in love with Hillman, a Navy pilot, and married him in 1945 when she was 19.
Mrs. Hillman began her decades of community service as a teenager searching the skies for aircraft over Pittsburgh during World War II. She later cleaned instruments for surgery, sold War Bonds and knitted socks for soldiers.
She befriended blacks in Pittsburgh — among them, civil rights leader Nate Smith; attorney Wendell Freeland; Jesse Matthews Vann, the wife of former Pittsburgh Courier publisher Robert L. Vann; and William P. Young, the secretary of labor and industry for Gov. Bill Scranton.
“She just wanted to help everyone to be the best they could be and never wanted recognition for her contributions,” said Esther Bush, director of the Urban League of Pittsburgh.
Mrs. Hillman joined the presidential campaign of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. That began her streak of supporting moderate Republicans such as Bush, Sens. John Heinz and Hugh Scott, and Govs. Scranton, Thornburgh and Tom Ridge.
“None of us would have achieved what we have politically without the guidance and leadership of Elsie Hillman,” said Ridge, who lunched with the Hillmans, Thornburgh and former Gov. Mark Schweiker last Christmas. “When I think of Elsie, I'll always think of her generous spirit and her warm heart.” With her husband, she gave millions of dollars to charity to support causes such as the Hillman Cancer Center at UPMC. She co-chaired the Save Our Summers campaign in 2004 when budget cutbacks forced the city of Pittsburgh to close swimming pools and recreation centers.
She helped begin the Neighbor Aid campaign to assist families devastated by the Great Recession of 2008.
Roddey revealed another of Mrs. Hillman's secrets. Although Forbes magazine once estimated her husband's wealth at $2.3 billion, she almost exclusively wore costume jewelry.
“Dearie, people think that's an emerald,'” he said she once told him. “‘I'm not going to waste my money on expensive jewelry. I have more important things to do with my money.'”
In addition to her husband, survivors include daughters Juliet Lea Simonds and Audrey Hillman Fisher; sons Henry Lea Hillman, Jr. and William Talbott Hillman; and nine grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at email@example.com. Staff writer Bill Zlatos contributed.