By Dan Majors / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Elsie Hilliard Hillman cared.
Her causes came in all sizes, from underwriting a public ice-skating rink in PPG Plaza to the millions of dollars that she and her husband, the industrialist Henry Hillman, donated to the fight against cancer.
A philanthropist and political activist whose lifetime of civic devotion made her a beloved figure in Western Pennsylvania and beyond, Mrs. Hillman died Tuesday morning of complications of old age at Shadyside Hospital. She was 89.
Once described as “the Grand Duchess of the Pennsylvania Republican Party,” Mrs. Hillman approached politics from the perspective of promoting social causes and was instrumental in the election of centrist politicians on the local, state and national level, her favorite campaign being that of her friend, former President George H.W. Bush.
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.”
As chairwoman of the state GOP and a member of the Republican National Committee from 1978 to 1996, Mrs. Hillman also lent instrumental support to Republican governors William Scranton, Dick Thornburgh and Tom Ridge, senators John Heinz and Arlen Specter, and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.
Yet her circle of influence was not limited to Republicans. Labor leaders considered her a friend of the working class. She counted longtime Allegheny County Commissioner Tom Foerster and Pittsburgh Mayors Tom Murphy and Sophie Masloff, all Democrats, among her closest 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.”