Elsie Hilliard Hillman, Influential Political Leader and Humble Philanthropist, Dies

Issue Date: 
August 24, 2015

News of Elsie Hilliard Hillman’s passing was met with sadness and expressions of admiration for the woman who was instrumental in the campaigns of U.S. presidents, governors, and senators, and whose philanthropic activities benefitted the lives of ordinary Pittsburghers. 

A prominent civic and political leader for more than half a century, Hillman worked tirelessly on behalf of women’s and education issues, racial equality, employment opportunities, and civil rights. A philanthropist and former Republican National Committeewoman, she died on Aug. 4 at age 89.

“Her overwhelming generosity to the University, the city that is our campus, and our region—along with her indomitable spirit—have affected and improved countless lives,” said Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher.

Through both her political and volunteer work—and her 70-year marriage and partnership with industrialist and investor Henry Hillman—Mrs. Hillman created an impressive legacy.

Over the years, she worked to engage the Republican party with African American community leaders; encouraged women to run for political office and supported their efforts; took a bold and proactive stand against bigotry and intolerance; met with HIV/AIDS patients and dropped by their homes with meals; helped raise funds to keep Pittsburgh city swimming pools open in 2004; and cochaired a committee aimed at solving Pittsburgh’s fiscal problems, among many other initiatives.

Monetary contributions from Elsie and Henry Hillman and the Hillman Family Foundation have helped build key structures—and programs—in Western Pennsylvania’s education and health sectors, including Pitt’s Hillman Library. Mrs. Hillman’s father-in-law, John H. Hillman, donated to the University the land on which Hillman Library now stands.

In 1999, the Henry L. Hillman and related Hillman Family foundations contributed $10 million to develop and expand the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. The contribution was used to build the Hillman Cancer Center, UPMC’s flagship cancer facility in Shadyside. 

Hillman and her husband are also members of the Cathedral of Learning Society, representing donors who have given Pitt $1 million or more.

In 2014, the couple awarded Pitt’s Institute of Politics a grant to establish the Elsie H. Hillman Civic Forum. The “Elsie Forum,” as it has come to be known, is designed to bring together community leaders and young people for educational programs, research projects, and mentoring opportunities to encourage students to get involved in helping to fuel the Pittsburgh region’s civic growth.

A few years earlier, the University’s Institute of Politics began working with Hillman to produce a case study of her political career. The publication, Never a Spectator: The Political Life of Elsie Hillman, ensued, detailing Hillman’s rise in the Republican Party as well as her character and leadership. The publication was released during a Pitt-hosted 2012 gala at Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland. Hundreds of guests turned out to hear panelists, including three former Pennsylvania governors, discuss Hillman’s lifetime of contributions to politics and the community. 

That same evening, Hillman received the inaugural Elsie Hillman Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Public Service. Created by the Institute of Politics, the award is given to honorees whose leadership has advanced the quality of life in Western Pennsylvania. Last year’s recipients were Pitt Chancellor Emeritus Mark A. Nordenberg and Carnegie Mellon University President Emeritus Jared L. Cohon.

For Institute Director Terry Miller, the relationship with Hillman has been a special one. 

“As a leader of an institution that examines public policy, engages leaders in civil dialogue, and seeks to find common ground … I could not have had a finer role model than that of Elsie Hillman,” said Miller. “Her inspired entrepreneurship, her gift to empathically relate to others, her dedication to social justice, and her unique ability to will-into-being the unimaginable, makes her contributions to the community beyond measure.”

Following the completion of Never a Spectator, the University of Pittsburgh acquired Hillman’s personal papers in 2013. The collection is housed at the Archives Service Center of the University of Pittsburgh’s Library System. Comprising more than one hundred boxes of manuscripts, photographs, and audio-visual material in addition to political memorabilia, the Elsie H. Hillman Papers are a rich resource documenting Hillman’s career.

As Hillman told Pittsburgh Quarterly last year, “Like Henry and I, and our kids, other Pittsburghers of considerable means must learn to be concerned about what’s going on around them in their community. We don’t live alone. None of us are islands. We must pay attention to the needs of others. After all, that’s what community is about.”

She is survived by her husband, Henry; four children, Juliet Lea Hillman Simonds, Audrey Hillman Fisher, Henry L. Hillman, Jr., and William Talbott Hillman; nine grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren.

A public memorial service will be held Sept. 19 at Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside.