Fond remembrances of social and political activist Elsie Hillman continued to be expressed Wednesday, a day after her passing at age 89, with many voicing their belief that her impact on the community will be long-lasting.
Of particular note were the many people who recounted stories of how Mrs. Hillman — despite the wealth and influence she shared with her husband, Henry — stood with those in need.
Sometimes, she sat with them.
George Fechter of Mount Washington was a member of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Council with Mrs. Hillman. Three years ago, at a large meeting of the State Cancer Coalition, Mr. Fechter said, the executive director expressed disappointment that Mrs. Hillman could not attend.
“I am here,” came a voice from the back of the room.
The director promptly invited Mrs. Hillman to take the seat reserved for her in the front row.
“Elsie responded she wanted to sit in the back with the cancer survivors,” Mr. Fechter said.
“Elsie Hillman was about people and what was fair,” said Esther Bush, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh. “She is known for taking stands that had caused some people to quiver — in support of African-Americans, in support of women, in support of gays and lesbians. If they were people and they were not being treated fairly, Elsie was on their side.”
She always was.
In May 1969, Republican John K. Tabor was running for mayor of Pittsburgh, and the local GOP scheduled a rally at the North Side Elks Club.
The problem was that the club was “whites only,” and the Catholic Interracial Council sent a letter of protest to Mrs. Hillman, chairwoman of the county party. Mrs. Hillman advised Mr. Tabor to instead attend a rally at a cafe on Foreland Street and asked members of the party to convene there.
The leaders’ vote to meet at the Elks Club as planned was 10-0 with two abstentions.
“We’ve been having Republican meetings at the North Side Elks for 30 years, and will continue to hold them there,” said J. Edward Waldron, chairman of the 27th Ward.
Mrs. Hillman caused a stir by making sure the public knew about the issue. She would cause such friction in the community and in her political party again and again.
“You can’t say that she did not care about the repercussions, because Elsie was strategic in everything she did,” Ms. Bush said. “So if Elsie said it, and she knew that it wasn’t going to play out well, she said it that way on purpose because she didn’t want it to play out well. She wanted to ruffle whoever’s feathers she was ruffling.”
Former city Councilman Sala Udin worked with Mrs. Hillman on a number of issues, including the “Save Our Summer” project to keep the city’s swimming pools open in 2004 and a task force formed to address Pittsburgh’s financial plight.
“She was a worker bee, and she kept everybody else working,” Mr. Udin said. “She was easy to work with if you came to work, because she was going to put you to work. If you just came to put your name on the letterhead, then you were going to have a problem with Elsie.”