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Remembered As A 'Champion Of Full Participation,' Elsie Hillman Dies At 89

AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File
In this Feb. 21, 2002 photo, Elsie Hillman, left, her husband Henry Hillman, back, join recipients of the Elsie Awards for community service, children's television host Fred Rogers, center, and former first lady Barbara Bush, at a Pittsburgh fundraiser.

Long-time Republican political insider and well-known philanthropist Elsie Hillman has died at the age of 89.

The family says she passed away peacefully Tuesday surrounded by family.

Hillman took an interest in politics from an early age. She worked on Republican campaigns and grew in status, eventually becoming a member of the Republican National Committee. She had the ear of several former Pennsylvania governors and is said to have advised sitting presidents, including George H.W. Bush.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge remembered one of his last meetings with Hillman, a luncheon in December, which also included former Govs. Dick Thornburgh, Mark Schweiker and Tom Corbett. 

“Make no mistake. None of us would have achieved what we have politically without the guidance and leadership of Elsie Hillman," Ridge said. "Elsie was always there for us, and always asking how she could help.”

Ridge called her “the preeminent Republican leader in Pennsylvania,” saying she has worked “tirelessly and courageously on behalf of the Party” for more than 60 years.

Thornburgh said Elsie Hillman was one of the first people he contacted when he first considered entering politics. That relationship lasted for decades, he said, but its nature changed over time. He remembered several meetings with her in the governor’s office.

“She was wise enough to know that she could offer advice to me at any time but never dictate the terms of our relationship,” Thornburgh said. “She respected the office and the independence I needed to have.”

When Hillman rose through the ranks of party administration, some were surprised to see a woman in that position. But for those who knew her, it was less of a shock.

“She broke a lot of accepted rules in her push for her causes, so you were never surprised to see ... Elsie as a woman and a champion of full participation,” Thornburgh said.  

A strong political influence was just the beginning of Hillman’s impact on the world. She was involved with several community organizations, including PBS-member television station WQED, The Hill House Association and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and a long list of philanthropic efforts like fundraising for the UPMC Cancer Center and the creation of the Elsie Hillman Chair in Women and Politics at Chatham University.

“Elsie was very giving of herself in every way,” said Esther Barazzone, Chatham University President. “She made sure that she would come and spend time one-on-one with students. It was all personal in the most honorable and wonderful way.”

Hillman showed that humanity when she began visiting AIDS patients in hospitals decades ago when the stigma was at its height.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto offered his condolences to the family and remembered her as “a pioneer who spent a lifetime changing things for the better. She was also gracious and down-to-earth, and did all she could to make Pittsburgh a better place for all.”

A statement from her husband said that beyond it all, her greatest joy in life was her family.

“Elsie was happiest when surrounded by her family,” Henry Hillman said. “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.” 

In addition to her husband of 70 years, she is survived by four children, nine grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements will be private and for the immediate family only. A community memorial service to celebrate her life is being planned for 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 19 at Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside.