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Outgoing Pittsburgh Foundation head leaves legacy of growth, diversity

Friday, December 14, 2001

By Dan Fitzpatrick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Alfred "Burr" Wishart Jr. left The Pittsburgh Foundation yesterday after 31 years at its helm, ending the longest tenure of any local foundation director.

Alfred Wishart, the outgoing chief executive officer of the Pittsburgh Foundation, stands near a painting for which he has a fondness, Kevin Kutz's portrait of the coaster at old West View Park. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

"I am ready," he said. Wishart, 70, leaves with two major achievements. One is The Pittsburgh Foundation's evolution from a modest $17 million endowment to a $548 million giant that ranks as the city's fifth-largest grant giver. The second is a staff that is as diverse as any organization in the city. Among its 40 employees are 37 women and 11 African-Americans, including The Pittsburgh Foundation's new president, William Trueheart.

When Wishart arrived at The Pittsburgh Foundation in 1970, his staff had no women and no African-Americans.

"He believes deeply in race relations," said his friend Moe Coleman, a University of Pittsburgh professor, "and he believes deeply if you preach it, you should practice it."

Wishart, an ordained minister from Washington, Pa., can trace his outlook on race and urban life to his time as pastor of the Arlington Avenue Presbyterian Church in East Orange, N.J. Wishart's racially mixed town bordered Newark, an aging industrial center where blacks formed almost a majority of the population but held little political power.

In the summer of 1967, Newark's black central district exploded in riots that left 26 people dead and more than 1,300 injured. Nearly a year later, more riots followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and much of the violence spread into neighboring East Orange. With armored troop carriers patrolling the streets, "People went out and bought guns," Wishart said.

"Everyone was walking around in a daze."

The day after King's assassination, Wishart marched 1,200 blacks and whites through the streets of Newark to show solidarity.

The experience of the riots, he said, changed him. Suddenly, he had doubts about the potential for racial harmony, thinking, "Can we really live together?"

The experience also caused him to leave the church in search of a "larger agenda."

He found it at The Pittsburgh Foundation, a public trust that solicits donations from some of the area's wealthiest individuals and redistributes that money to some of the area's neediest organizations.

Formed in 1945 by ketchup heir Henry John "Jack" Heinz, the foundation now houses 800 individual funds that have a combined market value of $548 million, making it the 14th-largest community foundation in the country. The various funds at the foundation range from $10,000 to $39 million. Last year, it distributed more than $23.5 million in grants.

When Wishart arrived, though, the foundation was not a big player in the philanthropic community and was known as a "poor man's foundation" that accepted small donations. The money did not always go to the neediest causes, either. At the time, a lot of foundations wanted to invest in "buildings, the symphony and the opera," Coleman said. Wishart "helped change that around."

On one of his first days on the job, Wishart outlined his goals. "We must find a way for old institutions to communicate with new urban agencies who need money," he said at a 1970 Downtown reception. During that speech, he also promised to fulfill the needs of groups "thus far ignored by funding agencies."

To do that, though, he needed to raise more money. Then as now, the Pittsburgh Foundation relied totally on donations, unlike most foundations that take money from a family trust. Wishart tried to use the "poor man" label to his advantage, running a series of television ads featuring a local teacher who had invested money with The Pittsburgh Foundation. Her memorable tag line was, "I am not a millionaire; I am a thousandaire."

Early on, though, Wishart was unable to devote all of his time to The Pittsburgh Foundation. When he took the job as president, he also assumed responsibility for the Pitcairn-Crabbe Foundation, the Howard Heinz Endowments and subsequently, the Vira I. Heinz Endowment. Family patriarch Jack Heinz asked Wishart to oversee the construction of Heinz Hall and the Benedum Center, two cornerstones of Downtown's Cultural District. With Heinz's money, Wishart also purchased properties up and down Liberty Avenue -- a thriving red-light district.

But Wishart's role changed yet again in 1993, when the Heinz family separated The Pittsburgh Foundation from the rest of the Heinz funds, asking Wishart to run The Pittsburgh Foundation exclusively. After years of sharing offices and resources with the Heinz funds, "We were suddenly on our own," said Frieda Shapira, The Pittsburgh Foundation's vice chair.

Wishart quickly shifted the foundation's focus to the issues of poverty, racism, economic vitality and quality of life for all citizens. The Pittsburgh Foundation began funding programs that offered after-school meals to children, renovated houses for low-income homeowners, promoted the arts in Pittsburgh's black community and recruited black teachers for Pittsburgh's city schools. Wishart also worked to save the Lemington Home for the Aged, a nursing home for African Americans.

Among local foundations, Wishart "has no peer" in addressing the needs of the African-American community, said Dave Epperson, who recently retired as dean of the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work. Added Mike Watson, director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation: "When we talked about improving the quality of life for Pittsburghers, he made sure we meant all Pittsburghers."

Last week, while reflecting on his three decades at The Pittsburgh Foundation, Wishart said, "I think we have enlightened the philanthropy in this community." But he also said that "I am not going to call myself a pioneer." He listed several African Americans now running local churches, schools and corporations. "That says to me that something is changing.

"Pittsburgh's reputation is changing."

Gripping the frayed arm of a leather chair, Wishart said he has no hesitation about leaving the foundation now and letting a "new generation" take over. "I wish I were 40 years old all over again, but time is what it is."

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