By Rachel Jones + Sierra Smith
In April 2017, Pittsburgh said its final goodbyes to two men who made significant impacts on the city: Dan Rooney and Henry Hillman. The “father” of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the investor/philanthropist who revolutionized the community will both be missed tremendously by everyone in the city and beyond. But they will be remembered fondly, and their legacies will carry on for eternity.
April 13, 2017 marked the first of back-to-back tragedies to rock the City of Pittsburgh with the passing of Steelers icon Dan Rooney. “It is a sad day for my family and me,” Dan’s son, Art II, says. “My father meant so much to all of us, and so much to so many past and present members of the Steelers organization. He gave his heart and soul to the Steelers, the National Football League, and the City of Pittsburgh. We will celebrate his life and the many ways he left us in a better place.” Dan was 84 when he passed.
Although remembered throughout the Steel City as the longtime chair of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dan also served as the U.S. ambassador to Ireland from 2009 to 2012, benefiting thousands with his philanthropic work. “Dan Rooney was a great friend of mine,” says former President Barack Obama in a statement. “But more importantly, he was a great friend to the people of Pittsburgh, a model citizen, and someone who represented the United States with dignity and grace on the world stage.”
Dan was born in Pittsburgh in 1932, the first son of Art and Kathleen McNulty Rooney. Just over a year later, his family founded the Steelers, establishing the Rooney family as a “first family” of the NFL. Following his graduation from Duquesne University in 1955, Dan took his first real job with team, starting in the front office and then working his way from running day-to-day operations to president of the franchise in 1975. In 2003, Dan handed his presidency off to Art II and became chairman, where he championed diversity efforts league-wide. In 2000, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Through his involvement with the Steelers, Dan became entwined with Pittsburgh, but nothing impacted the city and the NFL more than his famous Rooney Rule. The rule, adopted in the early 2000s and expanded in 2016, requires all NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs in the case of a vacancy. Since the rule’s inception, 17 minority head coaches have been hired — double the number that had been hired since 1920.
In 2009, Obama appointed Dan to the role of U.S. ambassador to Ireland, calling him “an unwavering supporter of Irish peace, culture, and education.” In 1976, one of actions that led to his appointment, he and Anthony O’Reilly founded what is now The Ireland Funds, which appeals for support for Ireland and its people from all Americans. Today, the Funds have raised over $550 million for thousands of organizations across Ireland and the world.
During his lifetime, Dan deeply impacted Pittsburgh, the United States, and the world as a whole. Not only have his diversity initiatives changed the very essence of the NFL, his hand in international affairs has generated millions of dollars for philanthropies around the globe. But more than any of this, he was a family man, and his family extended beyond the Rooney name to his city. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin says it best: “The passing of Mr. Rooney is a difficult time, not just for myself, the Pittsburgh Steelers organization, and the National Football League, but for everyone in the City of Pittsburgh and Steelers Nation … He embodied professionalism and was a man who created a family-like atmosphere that will continue on.”
The day after the news of Dan Rooney hit Pittsburgh, industrialist and investor Henry Hillman passed away at age 98. The husband of the late Elsie Hillman, Henry was a father of four, grandfather of ten, and great-grandfather of 16. “Daddy had such a tremendous life filled by a large family he loved dearly, innumerable friends, and great adventures in business and philanthropy,” says Henry’s daughter, Audrey Hillman Fisher. “Mother’s loss so soon after they celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary in 2015 was difficult, but he did what he always did; he kept going and kept our spirits going, too. We’ll miss him so much.”
Born to Pittsburgh industrialist John Hartwell Hillman, Jr. and Juliet Cummins Lea Hillman, Henry attended Shady Side Academy, The Taft School, and Princeton University before serving as a U.S. Navy aviator in World War II. When he returned home to Pittsburgh, he took over the family business, which had roots in coke and chemical production, and started a revolution in the world of private equity.
By the 1980s, The Hillman Company was the largest private equity investor in the U.S. “Henry created The Hillman Company as we know it today, having reshaped it from its roots in industrial businesses to diversified investing,” says Joseph Manzinger, president of The Hillman Company. “Although known in Pittsburgh mainly for his generous philanthropy, Henry was respected around the world as a pioneer in private equity and venture capital.”
Henry didn’t do it for the attention, he did it for the advancement of his community. His often-quoted statement, “The whale gets harpooned only when it spouts,” serves as a testament to his humble personality. “It wasn’t that he was secretive, he was just private,” says Carl Grefenstette, former president, CEO, and chairman of The Hillman Company. “He disliked blowing his own horn.”
Still, he made quite a bit of noise in the philanthropic community. Serving as a trustee and director for nonprofits and civic organizations, including the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Action Housing, the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, the University of Pittsburgh, and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Henry joined Elsie in contributing to the city that gave so much to their family. “Henry obviously was quite different than Elsie,” says Dr. Stanley Marks, chairman of UPMC CancerCenter. “She was much more out there and visible and outspoken. He was very quiet and humble, but certainly had the same passion and commitment that she did.”
The couple had a heavy hand in the establishment of the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, the flagship treatment and research facility of the UPMC cancer network. In addition to the building itself, the Hillmans endowed the Hillman Professorship of Oncology, which supports the Cancer Center director, and committed a $20 million gift (that grew to $25 million) to establish the Hillman Fellows for Innovative Cancer Research Program. Their generous grant has funded the research and groundbreaking ideas of young, innovative cancer researchers, whose discoveries then were further funded by the National Cancer Institute, which has impacted cancer care in the region and worldwide.
“Over the years, I became very close to both Elsie and Henry. Aside from their philanthropy, they were just great people and dear friends of mine,” Marks says. “I won’t forget that they were instrumental in getting me to come [to UPMC], but they’re the reason that we have the Hillman Cancer Center. Their legacy will live on in the halls of our Cancer Center, which bears their name, and also in the work that all of our researchers are doing here at UPCI. There’s no question that when we walk into the Hillman every day, it’s a living testament to both of their visions to improve cancer care and research in this region. We wouldn’t be here today without their vision and commitment.”