Henry Hillman gave for the people, not for himself
‘He was always talking about the next innovation’
Henry L. Hillman didn’t show his love for Pittsburgh with his money. He showed it with his fascination in the future and in new ideas. He showed it with his commitment to people.
The millions of dollars he and his wife, Elsie, who died in 2015, invested in the community over the decades were the incidental seeds they planted in the fields of science, business, education, health and art. The people, he said, would bear the fruit.
“Buildings do not treat cancer,” Mr. Hillman said in June 2005, when he and his wife announced a $20 million donation to the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and the UPMC Cancer Centers. “People do.”
Mr. Hillman, the visionary billionaire philanthropist who died April 14, will be remembered in a public memorial service at 11 a.m. Friday at Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside.
“He was always talking about the next innovation,” recalled Dr. Stanley Marks, director of the UPMC Cancer-Center. The Hillmans recruited him to lead the Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside.
“His commitment and contribution enabled us to recruit these world-class researchers. And it was their financial commitment to the Hillman Scholars Program that enabled us to fund young researchers who might be having difficulty getting funding because they haven’t produced yet, they don’t have a track record. Henry gave us almost $25 million over 12 years, and that has been parlayed into almost $100 million.”
Dr. Marks said he visited Mr. Hillman, who was 98 years old, many times during the last three weeks of his life. Even in his bed at UPMC Shadyside, Mr. Hillman was asking questions about the future, how the search for a new director was going and what kind of
research was being conducted.
The future, he was assured, was bright.
“The cancer center has exceeded the expectations of all involved,” Dr. Marks said. “We really didn’t have a good handle on the volume of patients that would be coming through here. And frankly, we’ve run out of space.
“There’s no question that on the clinical side, the patient volume exceed expectations. And on the research side as well, we have had a phenomenal track record. The Hillman Cancer Center has truly become an icon, not just in this area but nationally. We are attracting patients from around the country and around the world to see some of our experts here.”
The Hillman Scholars Program is representative of the family’s commitment.
“These young people are brilliant,” Dr. Marks said. “They have great ideas, but they need support to get over that first hump.”
Dr. Hassane Zarour, who received some of the foundation’s first funding in 2007, said young researchers with new ideas are dependent on individual philanthropists, such as Mr. Hillman. Industries or foundations are hesitant to invest in them.
“This is very important when you have this idea for a very risky project, but with the high risk is high reward,” Dr. Zarour said. “The personal foundations are more likely to help us get started on that.”
While the Hillman Cancer Center was the largest of Mr. Hillman’s beneficiaries, it is just one of many. The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh on the North Side credits its very existence to the Hillmans.
“When the Hillmans got involved 25 years ago, the museum was in a very precarious position, with some staff working without pay,” said executive director Jane Werner. “They stabilized us and started this amazing turnaround.
“Mr. Hillman will always impact the lives of these children. He was all about the future, and he wanted to invest in experiences for children and young families. I think he has created a legacy here with that. That’s what’s kind of nice. You can’t put a number on it because it’s just going to keep on going and growing and be an inspiration to others.
“He was very supportive of ideas. I remember very early in my time here, I was having a meeting with him and I had an idea and then I had a really big idea, which was joining the two buildings together with the building in between. Mr. Hillman said, ‘Let’s do the big idea.’ He was so committed to the future.”
Lynn Zelevansky, director of the Carnegie Museum of Art, said she remembers the man’s kindness and sense of humor as much as his generosity.
“We have a very generous acquisition fund from Henry,” she said. “Whenever we wanted to use it, I would write a letter to him and tell him what we want to use it for, why and how much it cost. So, I wanted to acquire a very expensive work by an artist name Paul Thek, and there was a rare piece that was being offered to us. It’s like a relic showing a man’s hand and arm sort of cut off in a piece of armor. It’s called ‘Warrior’s Arm.’
“So I asked him if he would support our using money from his fund to make this purchase, and I got this answer back that said, ‘It’s a good thing it isn’t an arm and a leg.’ I thought that was pretty terrific.”
Ms. Zelevansky said the passing of Mr. Hillman prompted her to look into how many works the Carnegie Museum had acquired through the fund. “It’s amazing,” she said. “It’s like 298 works, and that does not include all of the exhibitions that he’s supported.”
Museums were important to the Hillmans, Ms. Zelevansky said, because they’re important to Pittsburgh.
“We provide a museum that has major works for our community,” she said, “but it also gets the recognition from the rest of the world. It contributes to the livability of the city and makes it so more people want to live here. All of our culture is important, and it was important to him.”
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra can thank Mr. Hillman for its ability to represent Pittsburgh to the world.
“He felt that having a world-class symphony orchestra in Pittsburgh added a great deal to the panache of Pittsburgh,” said Dick Simmons, who spent 27 years as chairman of the symphony board before retiring last year. “Not only did it provide world-class classical music, but it was classical music in a city like Pittsburgh. He felt it was important that we toured, to travel the world and represent the city of Pittsburgh.”
The donations to the symphony amounted to more than $8 million.
“He was a remarkable man of the world,” said symphony director Manfred Honeck, who came to Pittsburgh in 2008. “He cared enormously about the people around him. He was not talking that much, but he was always thinking, ‘How can I make a better life for them?’
“But he wasn’t only thinking locally. He had an enormous sense of the future. ‘How can the world of Pittsburgh spread out to the world?’ And he came to the symphony. He knew that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is the best ambassador to the world.”
The symphony will be honoring Mr. Hillman — as well as Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney and longtime PSO administrator Jim Wilkinson, who died Saturday — during performances this weekend.
“We have this great success in America, but what we are doing here with our touring — his wisdom, he knew and understood. We go to the capital cities of Europe and these sensational festival tours. This would not be possible without the support of Henry Hillman. And he did it not because of him. It shows how humble he was. He did it for his beloved city, Pittsburgh. He wanted to spread the word of this city throughout the world.”
The son of a coal, steel and gas baron, Mr. Hillman became one of the richest men in America with investments including real estate, natural resources, distribution companies, medical technology and high technology. But above all was his investment in people. And he did so much of it without fanfare.
“Henry was a true example of how to get something accomplished while working behind the scenes,” said longtime Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy supporter Peggy McKnight. “Although he let Elsie take the lead, they were a deeply involved partnership who contributed greatly to our city. Their greatest trait was that they cared about everyone. They wanted to make a differ-ence in everyone's life.”
Patrick D. Gallagher was named University of Pittsburgh chancellor in 2014, but he was well-acquainted with the Hillman name and what it meant long before that.
“I remember visiting them in their home and we were in their living room,” he said, “when Henry said he wanted to show me his newest purchase. It was an Apple watch, and he was playing with it and all of a sudden the iPhone in his shirt pocket flashed. He had taken a picture of me. Here I was, I was supposed to be this young technology guy, and I was being schooled by him. He was a gadget guy, always interested in the latest technology.
“You know, he was unpretentious. He didn’t put his name on very many things. But his fingerprints are all over this region. They still are and they always will be. He will forever be a part of Pittsburgh.”