Gild the lily: (phrase) try to improve what is already beautiful or excellent.
Leprechaun: (noun, Irish folklore) one of a race of elves that can reveal hidden treasure to those who catch them.
Last week, Pittsburgh lost two giants: Henry L. Hillman, legendary businessman and philanthropic leader; and Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ambassador to Ireland.
I had the privilege to know and work (at least a bit) with both. Taken together, they were two of the most brilliant, accomplished people I’ve ever known, yet also two of the kindest and gentlest. They were two men who cared for their hometown (almost) as much as their own families.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s not like I worked day-in, day-out for either Henry Hillman or Dan Rooney. That (perhaps dubious) honor belonged to Elsie Hillman, with whom I served for over 26 years. But I did get to interact with these two gentlemen on various projects over the years. And from those projects, two stories stick with me.
In December of 2001, I was working with Henry Hillman on the grand opening of the ice rink at PPG Place, which the Hillman Company had recently purchased. An ice rink in downtown Pittsburgh was a big, big deal – and we have Mr. Hillman to thank for making it happen. Yet as we were going through all the plans and ideas for the opening, I admit I got a bit carried away with other ideas for the space that could be charitably described as (ahem) unique.
After patiently hearing me out, Mr. Hillman leveled his eyes at me and said, “Don’t gild the lily. Keep the focus on the rink and the children ice-skating. That’s what people want to see, that’s what they’ll remember.” He was right. Sometimes we can all go overboard. I pulled back, and I took his advice to heart. Many of you have probably heard me mention another personal favorite saying that expresses the same idea: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Not to mention that the ice rink turned out pretty much perfect, anyway.
My Dan Rooney story also highlights a time when I went a bit too far (noticing a pattern?). It was January of 2006. I was fortunate to serve on the small planning committee for the annual dinner benefitting the American Ireland Fund, which was co-founded by Mr. Rooney and which was, incidentally, honoring Elsie and Henry Hillman that year.
The first committee meeting took place in the press lunch room of Heinz Field. In walked the Ambassador carrying a shoebox filled with CDs of Irish music. He passed the box to his son, the newly-appointed President of the Steelers Art Rooney, and suggested he take the CD’s home, listen, and decide which ones to play at the dinner. I couldn’t believe it – this really was a family affair, where nothing was above or beneath a member of the committee.
Meanwhile, Patricia Rooney was appointed to get the band and the dancers. So when I suggested (after a typically well thought-out brainwave) that I could get some actors to walk around dressed as leprechauns, you could have heard a pin drop. Mr. Rooney raised his head and said simply, “There will be no damn leprechauns. We’ve worked for 200 years to get rid of that image. But you can help me and Patricia blow up balloons for the event.”
That moment helped me understand something fundamental: even though I was being admonished, Dan Rooney never put anyone beneath him. He saw the value in everyone and welcomed them to help in their own way – even if it meant sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with the Ambassador to Ireland to blow up a few green balloons.
Finally, with all of the touching tributes written about these two men over the past few days, I realize that just by sharing these stories, I’m breaking Henry Hillman’s own sage advice. After all, the work of these two men is already beautiful and excellent. But just this once, I hope Mr. Hillman would grant me an exception to “guild the lily” that is their legacy. I – and all of Pittsburgh – owe them that.