Henry Hillman remembered by family for the lessons of life

By Sean D. Hamill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

After a week’s worth of praise for the impact that Pittsburgh billionaire Henry L. Hillman had on the world in his 98 years, at his funeral Friday, four adult grandchildren and one of his sons explained the impact he had on them, and what he meant to them.

And, it turns out, it was not unlike the person many who worked with him in the business and foundation worlds have described over the last week since his death April 14: A serious, studied man, who could be tough, but for whom humility and family were paramount.

“I confess as I grew older, I grew intimidated by him,” Lilah Wise, one of Mr. Hillman’s grandchildren told the audience that nearly filled the pews at Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside. “But when we would talk, just when I thought the conversation would turn serious and he would ask me about life or work, he would lean in and ask: ‘So, are you on Facebook? Have you unfriended anyone?’”

“Of course, this was before the last election,” she said, drawing hearty laughter from the crowd of family, friends, co-workers and some who only knew of Mr. Hillman but came to remember him.

For anyone who did not know, she explained Mr. Hillman’s love of new gadgets and the world of computers.

“Pop-Pop,” she said, using the name the grandchildren called him, “was a total tech geek.”

Talbot Simonds noted that his grandfather was “one of the last and greatest generation, and perhaps the oldest millennial.”

He told the story of getting a ride home eight years ago from his grandfather – who was still driving his own car at 90 – and asking him what he planned to do that evening, which was Valentine’s Day.

Mr. Hillman told him he would have dinner with his wife, Elsie – who died in 2015 after 70 years of marriage – and then send all of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren a Valentine’s email or text.

“This is a man who once told me on the golf course to ‘aim for the telegraph pole,’ but who was going to spend the evening emailing and texting his family,” he said.

“Pop-Pop was a man for all ages,” he said.

Dylan Simonds said his grandfather, despite all of his accomplishments, lamented late in life that he had not become like CNN television journalist Fareed Zakaria – host of his favorite television show – who was able to engage so effortlessly with just about anyone he interviewed.

“He told me, ‘If I had regrets, it would be not having become someone like that,’” he said his grandfather told him.

“I feel [the comment] reveals …. the motivation that allowed [Mr. Hillman] to strive and succeed,” he said. “May each of us take inspiration from his example and try our best to become someone like that.”

Henry Simonds, another grandson, said that a big part of Mr. Hillman’s ethos came from having grown up wealthy and learning from his father “of the pitfalls of privilege and the dangers of excesses of that privilege.”

“He sought to ensure we as a family would carry on without the divisiveness other privileged families have,” he said.

He framed his remembrance around the poem, Biography, by Shel Silverstein, that quickly sums up life in six lines:

“First he was born/And then he was warned/And then he was taught how to swim/And then he was married/And then he was buried/And that’s all that happened to him.”

“I’d like to think,” Henry Simonds concluded, “that all of you in this room and city will carry on his legacy, and that will not be all that happened to him.”

One of Mr. Hillman’s two sons, Bill Hillman, said a comment often attributed to his father – “The whale that gets harpooned, it’s only when he spouts” – not only explains why he tried to stay out of the public eye, but that he understood his place in the world.

“Notice that Dad did not say ‘dolphin.’ He knew who he was,” Bill Hillman said.

“All the descriptions of his modesty belie the fact that Dad was a fierce competitor and always in control – except when Mother was in control,” he said, drawing laughs from the crowd.

Bill Hillman quoted a book that explained that a “mother’s love is unconditional, and that a father’s love is conditional.”

“My brother and I would agree,” Bill Hillman said.

“Despite our greatest efforts to make him proud,” he said, “Dad could be sparing in his praise and unsparing in his criticisms. But we always knew he was watching, and caring and loving us.”

Rev. Harold Lewis, who retired as Calvary’s rector five years ago, also made reference to the whale comment, saying: “Believing that it is the spouting whale that gets harpooned, Henry never fell into the trap of which St. Paul warned the Corinthians, of thinking of himself more highly than he ought to think.”

“This is because Henry relied on an inner confidence and sense of self-worth, and the fact that he knew who he was and whose he was,” Rev. Lewis said. “Unlike some so-called philanthropists who are little more than ATMs with a pulse, Henry understood fully that the philanthropist is first and foremost a lover of humankind.”

Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579 or Twitter: @SeanDHamill

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