Find Maxwell King’s display at Duquesne University.
“To make a career change from journalism to philanthropy and have the gift of a project like that right away, meant I couldn’t tentatively get in. I had to plunge in.”
I’ve had a number of career changes working in journalism, philanthropy, and running a non-profit, but the biggest one was when I was about 55 years old and went from being a journalist to coming out to Pittsburgh to be involved in philanthropy. I never expected that. I started out in journalism because I was interested in writing. I started out as a writer for newspapers and magazines. Then I became a city editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer and later became the editor of the paper. That was utterly exhausting as you might imagine. It was in the 1990s.
At 55 I decided that I’d go back to writing because that was the original career that I embarked on. I stepped down as editor and joined the editorial board writing op-eds and editorials about the environment. I got a call from a headhunter in New York asking me if I would be interested in interviewing for the job as president of the Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh. I was living in Philadelphia and thought, “Pittsburgh?” I’d only been there twice in my life and didn’t seem like a logical thing to do. I talked it over with my wife and decided that I’d do the interview in New York.
After the interview I went to Washington and interviewed with Teresa Heinz, who is the chair of the Heinz Endowments. Then I flew to Pittsburgh. The first time I flew to Pittsburgh was a beautiful sunny day. Coming in on the airplane, I saw the rivers and the river fronts. A lot was changing on the river fronts. This was in the late 1990s, and I could see that heavy industry was withdrawing and there was a lot of change. I got very excited and started reading Pittsburgh’s history. I had a friend at the newspaper in Philadelphia who had grown up in Pittsburgh and he started feeding me books. I accepted the job.
At the first board meeting we all started talking about what was happening on the river fronts, and what the potential was for Pittsburgh. I told the board about flying in, having had no idea how extensive the waterfront was in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has 36 miles of waterfront within the city, which is more than almost any other American city because of the three rivers. Everybody got up and went over to the windows of the 30th floor of the EQT building where the Heinz Endowments is and looked down on the river and started talking excitedly about the potential. They spontaneously appropriated a million dollars and said, “We need to make something happen that’s exciting for Pittsburgh.” They said, “Max, you’re new here. This is a good project for you. Figure out something.” I thought, “Well, maybe that’s how they do business here. They get excited about things and plonk down a million dollars.” It never happened again in my nine years at the Heinz Endowments.
I had two jobs: learn how to run the Heinz Endowments and figure out the riverfront. People referred me to a man named Mike Watson who ran the R.K. Mellon Foundation. He was a dean of philanthropy in Pittsburgh. He gave me names of people to talk to, including the mayor, Tom Murphy, who had been focused on the river fronts. Tom Murphy had started building trails. He took the Public Works Department with no particular funding and used the regular funding to start building hiking and biking trails just to get people to come to the rivers. They referred me to John Craigie, editor of the Pittsburgh Post because he had been writing editorials and op-eds about the potential of the river fronts. Teresa Heinz was just wonderful to work with, and she loved fresh ideas. She had lots to say and then never micro-managed us on the staff. She put out ideas and let us run with it.
One of the things she did that was really smart was hosting a dinner party at her farm in Fox Chapel, Rosemont Farm. She artfully invited key community leaders: presidents of the banks, presidents of Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, the major universities and colleges, presidents of foundations, business leaders, political leaders, and the mayor. She had 30 people at this dinner where everybody talked about the rivers being among the most important potential assets around which to build the future of Pittsburgh. Then we used that funding with more R.K. Mellon put in, and funds from other foundations to start the Riverlife Task Force.
Somebody observed that David McCullough, the author and historian who grew up in Pittsburgh, had talked about the rivers being defining characteristics of Pittsburgh. I gave him a call and told him what we were doing. I said we’re going to kick off the Riverlife Task Force with a cruise on one of the Gateway Clipper Fleet ships and bring about 120 people together to launch the project. We need a speaker.
David McCullough agreed to come. He gave the most spectacular, inspiring, thoughtful, detailed, moving speech about Pittsburgh, its history and its character. I can’t remember the exact words that he used but he essentially said, “Don’t do something small. This is a big opportunity, so do something big.”
We started having meetings, raising money, and working with the city government, the county government, and the state government. Mayor Murphy appointed the members of the Task Force. Ultimately, between foundations and those three government entities, we raised $35 to $40 million to do what you see now. Not just the trails along the rivers but everything in front of the Convention Center and over on the North Shore. We hired a great urban planner from Harvard named Alex Craigor. This was only 15 years ago.
Alex Craigor was the chairman of the Department of Urban Planning at Harvard. He fell in love with the potential of it. The Riverlife Task Force created this really detailed long-term plan, the execution of which was all the infrastructure and trails along the rivers and the amenities that have been built there. I want to emphasize the remarkable leadership of two particular people as well: Lisa Schroeder, who became the executive director of the Riverlife Task Force, and Edith Shapira, one of the chairmen of the Riverlife Task Force part of the time with me. Edith is now the Chairman of the Board of the Pittsburgh Foundation. Under their direction it’s extraordinary. If you go back and look at Alex Craigor’s plan, we did it. Looking at Pittsburgh’s renaissance today, we are in this exciting time with the city being so much more vibrant than it was 20 years ago. Young people are moving here and companies are moving here. You walk around downtown in Oakland and it’s rich and exciting. A big part of that is the rivers. The rivers give cohesion and a personality.
To make a career change from journalism to philanthropy and have the gift of a project like that right away, meant I couldn’t tentatively get in. I had to plunge in. It was a great gift for Pittsburgh. It’s been transformative. It was a great gift for me because it plunged me into the community.