A titan and a gentleman
Henry Hillman gave Pittsburgh more than money
In the history of Pittsburgh philanthropy, Henry Lea Hillman, who died Friday at the age of 98, was a towering figure who kept a low profile. It matched his approach to business, where he achieved extraordinary success while living by his much-cited motto, “The whale gets harpooned only when he spouts.”
The Hillman name is attached to important institutions around Pittsburgh, doing good works for the greater good. But like the self-effacing man who built a family industrial business into a major American fortune, many of his good works were done in private, quietly filling needs and providing essential and timely support.
His steadfast presence is among the factors that allowed Pittsburgh to regain its footing after heavy industry’s decline in the 1980s. In an era of portable capital and short-term profits, Mr. Hillman played the long game, keeping faith with his hometown of Pittsburgh and inspiring others to do the same.
Mr. Hillman would be offended if a tribute did not quickly note the role of his wife, Elsie, who died in August 2015. Their marriage of 70 years was a match made in heaven. (When asked the secret of their matrimonial strength, Mr. Hillman would quip, “I told her from the beginning, ‘I won’t try to run your life. And I won’t try to run mine.’ ”) In philanthropy, the Hillmans were the embodiment of donors who did more than write checks. They gave their time, energy and spirit to causes large and small.
The Hillman Cancer Center was chief among their efforts, part of a sustained commitment to cancer research. Mr. Hillman was known for his expert involvement in the details of whatever he supported, from the Hillman Center for Future-Generation Technologies at Carnegie Mellon University to the Hillman Hall of Minerals and Gems at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. A geology major at Princeton, Mr. Hillman took a natural interest in showcasing the museum’s collection. And as one of the pioneers of private equity investing in Silicon Valley, he knew the value of supporting the work of future generations.
A life as accomplished as Mr. Hillman’s is a hard act to follow — few have the acumen to create wealth in the billions, and dispense it in a sensible manner. But in other important ways, his was an easy character to imitate: Work hard, play fair, live below your means and treat everyone with equal respect. Pittsburgh was lucky to have Henry Hillman as a citizen, and even luckier that his legacy will live on.