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Pittsburgh political activist, philanthropist Elsie Hillman dies at 89

By Dale Shoemaker / News Editor

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Elsie Hillman knew the secret to playing politics — food.

“She had a saying, ‘It’s smart politics, you have to feed them,’” Chelsa Wagner, Allegheny County Controller, said.

Frequently, Hillman would host politicians in her home, sometimes “every Republican politician in Pittsburgh,” Wagner said. But these dinners weren’t about hosting politicians to push a GOP agenda. She hosted Democrats, too — her own values trumped partisan politics.

That, Wagner said, is a big part of Hillman’s legacy.

Hillman, 89, passed away of old age Tuesday morning at Shadyside Hospital. A former member of the Republican National Committee for more than 20 years and friend of presidents, governors, senators and thousands of others, Hillman, who shares a name with the library on Pitt’s main campus, was a prominent civic leader and one of Pittsburgh’s biggest political donors.

Hillman is survived by her husband of 70 years, billionaire industrialist Henry Hillman, her four children, Lea Simonds, Audrey Fisher, Henry Hillman, Jr. and Bill Hillman, as well as nine grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

In a statement, Henry said while her dedication to civic organizations and philanthropy were a large part of Elsie’s life, her family gave her the most joy.

“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,” Henry said.

Though she was a chairwoman of the state GOP, Elsie was known for funding candidates on both sides of the aisle, her fervor for supporting women’s reproductive rights and Planned Parenthood and fighting for women politicians like Wagner.

“What Elsie recognized, is that if you increase the number of women in office, the probability of compromise goes up,” Wagner said.

Toward this effort, Elsie started the political action committee Run, Baby, Run in 2006. That year, the first that Wagner, a Democrat, ran for office, Elsie was her biggest donor. At first, Wager was taken aback, but soon realized that was just how Elsie did business.

“What was really amazing about [Run, Baby, Run] was it was non-partisan, no strings attached. Elsie realized we need women in the legislature,” Wagner said.

For Elsie, it didn’t matter if the women she backed had a shot at winning.

Along with Wagner in 2006, Elsie also donated to Robin Redding, who challenged incumbent state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Cranberry) that year. Redding lost that race, but said Elsie was happy to support her regardless.

“She wanted to see good people get into office and I felt honored by that,” Redding said.

Those good people included men, as well. Many of the times he’s run for office, Elsie has supported Pennsylvania Sen. Dan Frankel (D-Pittsburgh).

Most recently, Elsie donated $3,000 to Frankel’s 2014 reelection campaign, according to Followthemoney.org. Although they were separated by party lines, Frankel said he grew close with Elsie because they agreed on many things.

“I was very grateful to find a voice in my community whose voice resonated with my point of view,” Frankel said. “[Elsie] wasn’t a Republican first, she was a leader of our community first.”

Frankel said she was more than just a generous philanthropist and advocate for women’s rights, minorities and the LGBT community.

“You always knew that, when she advocated for something, it was because it was from the heart, and she placed the interests of our neighborhood, our city, our state and the nation ahead of partisan interests,” Frankel said.

At Pitt, Elsie’s namesake is attached to more than a library. Last year, Pitt’s Institute of Politics, headed by Terry Miller, announced it would launch the Elsie Hillman Civic Forum to help students prepare for civic engagement. The forum, which is expected to launch this fall, will feature scholarships and special classes for students, Miller said, and is funded by the Henry L. Hillman Foundation.

In 2012, Pitt launched the Elsie Hillman Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Public Service, which it awards each year to an individuals whose life has benefited the Pittsburgh community.

In memoriam, Pitt’s University Library System Archvines Center has launched a website to serve as an introduction to Elsie’s life and accomplishments.

The website, which users can access starting Thursday, can be found at http://elsiehillman.pitt.edu.

Miller, who helped write a book on Elsie’s civic career in 2011 titled, “Never a Spectator: The Political Life of Elsie Hillman,” said her legacy is fighting for those who don’t have a voice and always doing the right thing.

“[Elsie taught me] always to be mindful of those who are not at the table and to raise my voice for them,” Miller said. “If I can do that to one-tenth the degree Elsie did, I will consider myself a lucky person.”

The Hillman family is holding a community memorial service to celebrate Elsie’s life at 10:30 a.m. Sept. 19 at Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside.

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Pittsburgh political activist, philanthropist Elsie Hillman dies at 89