This article first appeared in the Pittsburgh [i]Tribute Review[ei]
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.
At the height of her involvement in Pennsylvania 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 GOP committee chairman Jim Roddey, a former county executive whose campaign she supported.
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.’"
Mrs. Hillman, the wife of industrialist Henry Hillman of Squirrel Hill, died of heart failure at UPMC Shadyside. She was 89.
"Elsie was happiest when surrounded by her family," said her husband. "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."
Former President George H.W. Bush, whom Mrs. Hillman supported, said the country lost "one of the brightest points of light and finest political activists with the passing of our dear and cherished friend. Wherever she went, whatever she did, Elsie was a leader, a force of nature around whom good and worthwhile things were always happening.
"She had the biggest, most caring heart," Bush said. "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.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said Mrs. Hillman was "a pioneer who spent a lifetime changing things for the better. She was also gracious and down-to-earth, and did all she could to make Pittsburgh a better place for all. Thousands in our city and far beyond were touched forever by her goodness."
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 naval pilot, and married him in 1945 when she was just 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 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. Bill Scranton, Richard Thornburgh and Tom Ridge.
"None of us would have achieved what we have politically without the guidance and leadership of Elsie Hillman. Elsie was always there for us, and always asking how she could help," said Ridge, who attended a lunch with the Hillmans, and former Govs. Dick Thornburgh and Mark Schweiker during the Christmas holidays last year.
"When I think of Elsie, I’ll always think of her generous spirit and her warm heart," Ridge said, "The Hillmans’ philanthropy in Pittsburgh, and beyond, is renowned. Quite simply, Elsie Hillman was an incredible human being."
Mrs. Hillman was a Republican national committeewoman from 1975 to 1996 but she became disenchanted when the party’s right wing became more dominant. She encouraged women and minorities to run for political office.
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 went to civic leaders and foundations and asked everyone to create a fund and the will to keep those pools and facilities open so children would have a safe place to go," said Kathy Buechel, senior lecturer and director of the Philanthropy Forum at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.
She helped launch 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; nine grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at [email protected] Staff writer Bill Zlatos contributed.
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