Honey, I Have an Idea…
In May of 2013, Renny Clark and I arrived at the Hillman residence at 11 a.m. Our mission was to propose the creation of a forum for student civic engagement at the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute of Politics and hopefully the seed of an endowment to support the forum’s work.
Elsie responded with her typical excitement about involving young people in civic life. Not just an armchair enthusiast, she quizzed me about how we could develop programs that would have an authentic and lasting impact on students and the community. I shared my general ideas about civic engagement, mentoring and leadership development opportunities that could encourage greater social responsibility among students and community partners. I said I hoped she would help to shape the programs, not just fund them, should we move forward.
Over the following year, Renny and I worked with Mr. and Mrs. Hillman and the leadership of the Hillman Family Foundations to, as Elsie put it with that inimitable sparkle in her eye, “get cracking on these ideas.” We put together multiple possible work plans, strategies and budgets. We looked at models around the country for ideas and worked to capture Elsie’s hopes for what the forum could be for Pittsburgh college students.
The result was a $5 million gift to endow the creation of the Elsie Hillman Civic Forum. We were both grateful and humbled at this unique gift and opportunity—not just funding support for the institute we serve, but also the ability to remember, honor and advance Elsie’s remarkable legacy of service to our community.
We announced the Elsie Hillman Civic Forum and its endowment in late spring of 2014. For decades, Elsie and Henry Hillman have been inspiring examples of civic leaders passionately advancing our region’s progress, so to have them both embrace the mission of the institute was an honor beyond measure.
“It is possible to see something good and work for it, and even attain it. Never be a spectator. You are needed in every corner of the community.” —Elsie Hillman
In the following months, I developed a list of potential candidates to serve on the national advisory council of the forum and to flesh out the ideas Elsie and I had discussed. We’d intended to have her actively involved in designing the programs, but Elsie’s health began to wax and wane. We communicated often, however, and in June of last year, having finalized plans for the educational programs and design for our website, Elsie wanted to meet.
As always, when I opened the door to the Hillman’s home, the fragrance of flowers greeted me. In the entryway on the table sat a beautiful bouquet of heliotrope, tuberose and velvety pastel roses. Elsie welcomed me from the parlor, with her familiar “In here, dearie.” She sat dressed in a pale blue sweater with a silk floral scarf draped around her neck and, of course, her signature headband. She was frailer than just a few weeks earlier, when she had accepted the 2015 Justice Bell Award from the League of Women Voters for her tireless efforts to support women in politics.
I took my seat across the table from her, absorbing the scents, images and poignancy of the moment. I had come to discuss how we planned to spread her inspirational legacy, knowing this might be the last time I would see her.
The moment our eyes met, I saw that Elsie twinkle and spark.
“So you see that same-sex couples now can marry,” she said.
“I do,” I replied. “How exciting, right?”
“To change the hearts and minds of people so everyone can marry who they love—it gives me renewed hope for our nation. I never thought I would live to see it,” she said. “Well, you have, Elsie, and what a great social-justice milestone to witness. It must give you great personal joy, as you have dedicated so much of your life to civic progress.”
Before she could respond, consultant John Denny came clamoring into the room with a cookie in his mouth, apologizing for his tardiness.
“He’s my bad boy,” Elsie said with a faint chuckle and wink. “Everyone has to have at least one.”
We talked through each of the proposed student programs— the Elsie Honors Scholars, Legislator for a Day, Elsie Hillman Leader-in-Residence, Elsie Internship class, the annual Never a Spectator event, and her personal favorite, the “Elsie ACEs” Ambassadors for Civic Engagement. We reviewed the list of invitees for the advisory council, and after checking the list carefully for balance in terms of race, gender, geography, and political and community representation, Elsie asked me to extend invitations.
After an hour, Elsie was tiring, and I asked if she would like to look at communication design at another time, but she declined. I believe she knew this would likely be our last time together. I presented her with design options for formal and informal correspondence and treatments for social media, and she thoughtfully put her elegant mark on each one.
As I gathered up the materials and swallowed hard on the lump rising in my throat, Elsie said in a faint voice, “Dearie, this is so much work. I don’t know how on earth you are going to do all of this!” I looked her straight in the eye and responded, “You know, Elsie, if you hadn’t done so damn much, I wouldn’t have so much to do!” We shared a good laugh. In that moment, my heart, full of hope for what was to come, was tethered to the sadness of what was to be. Reaching out to Elsie, I cupped her face in my hands, kissed her cheek, and whispered, “Thank you… I love you.”
Given the countless lives she touched and causes she advanced, Elsie’s death triggered widespread mourning and deep gratitude from those who witnessed the enormous good she did over so many years. Whenever people who knew Elsie come together, the pattern is the same: typically a smile comes across their face, followed by shared memories of working on Elsie projects that involved both wonderful outcomes and a dose of mischief. Such was the case of the inaugural meeting of the Elsie Forum National Advisory Council, co-chaired by John Denny and Edie Shapira. The group reviewed the student program offerings and strategy.
In January 2016, we launched two programs designed to provide students with firsthand experience working with local, state and federal elected officials, and planned the Never a Spectator event. Balloons, flowers, music, good conversation and laughter filled the air of Pitt’s Connolly ballroom as a diverse group of more than 200 students, university administrators and regional leaders gathered for the inaugural student Never a Spectator event. This was the institute’s Elsie Forum “coming-out party” to introduce Pitt students to the forum.
Chancellor Emeritus and Institute Chair Mark Nordenberg welcomed the crowd, and John Denny described Elsie to the students, capturing her warmth, compassion, political prowess and infectious sense of humor. Michael Tubbs, a young councilman from Stockton, Calif., spoke of the importance of involving young people in civic life. Students then interacted with regional dignitaries about their vision for Pittsburgh, why young people are critical to fulfilling that vision and how we can engage young people in Pittsburgh’s ongoing transformation.
Elsie’s essence filled the room. I thought how excited and impressed she would be with the academically diverse students who assembled to learn about her and how they, too, can make their mark in our region through the Elsie Forum. I have often thought that if Elsie had a power color it would be “sparkle.”
As I looked around the room that evening, I saw hope and a bright outlook in the faces of the future leaders of her beloved Pittsburgh. How very pleased she would have been. And, what a very special privilege it will be to engage with these future leaders to make Elsie’s a true living legacy.