If Pittsburgh were to have a royal family, it would have to be the Hillmans. But unlike Queen Elizabeth, who is a benign figure head presiding over ribbon-cuttings, the late Elsie Hillman, the grande dame of Pittsburgh’s most prominent family, donned a headband instead of a crown and went into the trenches to make a difference in the world.
A Sense of Service is Instilled in Hillman
Elsie Hilliard Hillman spent decades getting her hands dirty to help make life better in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the United States, especially for those who have been marginalized. Born December 9, 1925, at her home on Aylesboro Avenue, Elsie Hilliard was the fourth of Marianna Talbot Hilliard and Thomas J. Hilliard’s children. She grew up in Fox Chapel and attended The Ellis School and The Ethel Walker School. Her father was an executive vice president for U.S. Steel, and in interviews, Mrs. Hillman stated that her family was comfortable, but faced some financial difficulties at one time resulting in her mother having to go to work selling glass. During her childhood, one thing that was impressed upon the Hilliard children by their parents was their obligation to serve others, and as a young girl, Elsie volunteered by cleaning surgical instruments at Eye and Ear Hospital, selling war bonds, and knitting socks for soldiers.
Elsie the Hellion
After graduation from boarding school, Mrs. Hillman briefly attended Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. The school was founded by her grandmother Catherine Haulk Talbott and is now part of Rider University. Young Elsie studied piano and voice, but soon proved to be one not content to go with the flow. Mrs. Hillman said of those times in an interview with Pittsburgh Urban Media, “I smoked cigarettes. I didn’t know exactly what I was supposed to do, I was the fourth child and I was trouble in river city.”
Elsie Marries Henry Hillman
It wouldn’t be long before she would find out what she “was supposed to do.” When she graduated from boarding school, her mother allowed her to visit her brother in New York. While there, she met Henry Lea Hillman, the son of Pittsburgh industrialist John H. Hillman, Jr., the mogul who built Pittsburgh Coke & Chemical. Henry was a friend of her older sister and Elsie knew his younger sister. One evening, her brother had a date and called Henry to ask him to take out his sister. A year later in 1945 at the age of 19, Elsie Hilliard married Henry Hillman, a U.S. Navy pilot stationed in Brooklyn, New York.
When the war ended, the Hillmans returned to Pittsburgh, where Henry would refocus the family business as The Hillman Co., diversifying its interests to include real estate, private equity, and venture capital, and turning the Hillmans into the wealthiest family in Pittsburgh. Their net worth today is an estimated $2.5 billion.
Elsie Sets Out to Serve
With that kind of fortune, Mrs. Hillman could have been content to serve as society matron for charitable boards, hosting teas and soirees, or spend her time travelling, but the values her family instilled in her of serving once again emerged—this time for work in the field of politics.
Elsie Discovers Politics
An admirer of war hero Dwight Eisenhower, Mrs. Hillman volunteered for his presidential campaign when he ran as the Republican candidate in 1952. In an interview in 2014 for Pittsburgh Quarterly, she revealed that her husband was not only wise when it came to business but in politics as well. “I really liked Eisenhower, which is why I got involved in the Republican Party as a volunteer in the first place. ‘Ike’ was a great leader. But when I told Henry what I was planning to do, he warned me: ‘Once you get involved in politics, Elsie, it’s going to be like eating peanuts. You’re going to go on forever.’”
After the Eisenhower campaign, she became involved in local politics, organizing an outreach to African American voters in 1962 and running for chair of the Allegheny County Republican Party in 1967, becoming the first woman elected to head a political party in an urban area. It was during those years that Mrs. Hillman saw a different side of her hometown, one that was unfamiliar to her, that of the lack of civil rights being afforded to blacks. Outraged, she volunteered for several boards of directors for traditionally African American organizations including the Hill House Association.
Hillman Prefers to Work Behind the Scenes
Although she became a rising star on the political scene, and she was approached to run for higher office, Mrs. Hillman preferred to work within the community and within the party to elect leaders. In 1975, the moderate republican was elected to the Republican National Committee and served as a committee member until 1996. Mrs. Hillman was instrumental in the elections of numerous politicians including U.S. Senator John Heinz, Governors Dick Thornburg and Tom Ridge, and President George H.W. Bush. In 1996, she retired as the longest-serving Pennsylvania Republican national committeewoman.
However, her influence was not limited to the political realm. In addition to serving on numerous civic organizations, in 2000, Mrs. Hillman helped establish the Pennsylvania Center for Women & Politics at Chatham University, and in 2006 she established the Elsie H. Hillman Foundation.
Elsie’s Influence Expands Beyond Politics
While Mrs. Hillman stepped back from the political scene, she and the Hillman family continued to work to make the community a better place. The mother of four, grandmother of nine, and great-grandmother to 12, who was known by her trademark headband, during her exceptional life saw the establishment of the Hillman Library at the University of Pittsburgh, the Hillman Cancer Center, and the Hillman Center for Performing Arts at Shadyside Academy.
The Hillmans’ Hearts Belong to Pittsburgh
Mrs. Hillman once recounted how during the war when she and her husband were first married, someone asked them what they would be doing when Henry was discharged from the Navy and offered him a job in Texas. “But Henry said, ‘No, thanks. I think we ought to head back to Pittsburgh.’ So we did, and here we are. Henry and I chose to live here, and we wouldn’t change now for anything,” said Mrs. Hillman.
In that same interview with Pittsburgh Urban Media, Mrs. Hillman commented on what her role was, “I think what I am is sort of access to other people, I help people get from point A to point B, and that seems to be what I do a lot of the time, and I happened to have been around so long that I know where people are when I hear what’s going on its easy to put people together.”
Elsie Hillman died on August 4, 2015, at the age of 89 after 70 years of marriage to Henry Hillman but not before leaving her stamp on Pittsburgh. During her lifetime, she was honored with numerous awards, including the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Public Service, which was named in her honor and awarded to her in 2012 by the University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics.