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Elsie Hillman was member of the Republican National Committee from 1978 to 1996. (Pgh Post Gazette)
 Pittsburgh philanthropist Elsie Hillman passes at 89. (Courier Newsroom. NewPghCourier)


Elsie Hillman was member of the Republican National Committee from 1978 to 1996.

Elsie Hilliard Hillman, a philanthropist and political activist whose lifetime of civic devotion made her a beloved figure in Western Pennsylvania and beyond, died early today at UPMC Shadyside. She was 89.

The wife of billionaire industrialist Henry Hillman, whom she married in 1945, she rose from a volunteer in the 14th Ward in Squirrel Hill to the sanctum of Republican national decision-makers, always with the purpose of helping people.

Once described as "the Grand Duchess of the Pennsylvania Republican Party," Mrs. Hillman approached politics from the perspective of promoting social causes. As chairwoman of the state GOP and a member of the Republican National Committee from 1978 to 1996, she was instrumental in the election of centrist politicians on the local, state and national level.

Former Republican governors William Scranton, Dick Thornburgh and Tom Ridge, senators John Heinz and Arlen Specter, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and President George H.W. Bush were among the many who counted on her counsel and support before and after they were elected.

Mr. Bush, whom Mrs. Hillman helped get elected in 1988, described Mrs. Hillman to the Post-Gazette as “ a wonderful gal” and praised her for being “amazingly active in politics and her community” and for being “always concerned about making a contribution.”

Mr. Bush’s wife, Barbara, once described Mrs. Hillman as ''a cross between Teddy Roosevelt and Auntie Mame.’’

“Elsie Hillman, our dear friend, broke the mold,” Mr. Bush said. “She was full of wisdom, full of energy, and full of humor. She was a tireless political activist, and a wonderful, caring human being. I was blessed to have her on my side. Barbara and I loved her.”

“Elsie was happiest when surrounded by her family,” said husband Henry Hillman. “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.”

Yet her circle of influence was not limited to Republicans. She counted longtime Allegheny County Commissioner Tom Foerster and Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, whom she recognized for his “vision and leadership,” as close friends. Democratic Mayor Joseph Barr, who served from 1959 to 1970, once told Mr. Foerster, “Anytime you need help of any kind, you go see Elsie.”

With unbridled enthusiasm and good humor, Mrs. Hillman balanced her undisputed power and wealth with touches of common life. She drove herself around in cars ordinary except for the elephant hood ornament. When giving tens of thousands of dollars to state candidates, she listed her occupation as ''housewife.’’ The silver with which she occasionally served large numbers of guests was bought second-hand at a government auction.

She connected the black community to chief executive officers of major corporations and personally delivered food baskets to dying AIDS victims and stayed to eat with them. She established the Republican Future Fund to promote centrist policies and candidates and was a staunch supporter of abortion rights -- a position that frequently caused friction in the party.

In 2005, the Hillmans donated $20 million to the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and the UPMC Cancer Centers.

Former Gov. Tom Corbett, who was among 300 people attending a May 2012 salute to Mrs. Hillman at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, said she “created a generation of leaders ... with a clear set of goals and the capacity to not only get along with very different people but to show those people how to get along with each other. That's politics at its purest."

Terry Miller, director of the university's Institute of Politics, hailed Mrs. Hillman for the time, effort, money and influence she invested in people and causes -- including rights for women, minorities and gays -- often when the stands were not popular.

But they were more than stands. They were movements that Mrs. Hillman had a hand in setting in motion.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by four children -- Lea Simonds, Audrey Fisher, Henry Hillman Jr., and Bill Hillman -- nine grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements will be private and for the immediate family only. A community memorial service to celebrate her life is being planned for Sept. 19 at 10:30 a.m. at Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh.


CourierNewsroom. NewPghCourier.

Dan Majors / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Date Published: 
Tuesday, August 4, 2015 | 412-765-1820 |

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