Conrad Hilton was born on Christmas Day, 1887, on the banks of the Rio Grande, in the tiny frontier town of San Antonio, New Mexico Territory. Connie, as he was called, was the second child of eight, the oldest boy of A. H. “Gus” Hilton and Mary Laufersweiler Hilton.
From his father, Hilton learned the imperative of hard work. Gus Hilton was a trader and merchant, which in those days and in that place meant engaging any and all legitimate business that came his way. He sold goods behind the counter of his general store, at mining outposts, trappers’ encampments, or the haciendas of old Spanish ranchers. As Hilton would later write of his father, work was “precisely as necessary to him as food and air, an ever present refuge in trouble. . . . He never connected it with the sweat of the brow nor the punishment of the sons of Adam. He was all for the joy of the thing.” So it would be with the younger Hilton.
From his mother, a devout Catholic, Hilton came to view prayer as no less a necessity and no less a sanctuary than work. “Some men jump out windows, some quit,” his mother told him during the Great Depression. “Some go to church. Pray Connie. It’s the best investment you’ll ever make.” Even at the darkest, most difficult moments of his life, Hilton always found strength and consolation in his faith.
In 1912, New Mexico became the 47th state in the Union, and at age 23 Hilton was elected to the state’s first legislature. But politics did not much appeal to the budding entrepreneur, who decided two years later to try his hand at banking. That endeavor was interrupted by the start of World War I, throughout which he served as an Army officer. Then, with $5,011 to his name, he moved to the booming oil fields of Texas, where he hoped to buy a bank and resume his pre-war career. What he bought instead was the dilapidated Mobley Hotel in Cisco, Texas. It was Conrad Hilton’s “first love.”
In just 20 years, Hilton’s hospitality business grew from small reclamation projects to newly constructed million-dollar high-rises. Like many entrepreneurs, his business acumen sprang less from acquisitiveness than from a spirit of ingenuity, creativity, and awe in the face of human possibilities. By 1929, he owned hotels all over Texas, with plans to expand beyond the Lone Star State.
The Crash of 1929 nearly erased all of it. By 1933, Hilton retained only one hotel, and that barely. Yet he survived.
Recovery was slow at first: paying down debts and reacquiring lost properties. But as the Depression lifted, and the post-War boom started in earnest, the Hilton Hotel Company reached new heights. In 1946, a corporation was formed, and a year later, it became the first hotel traded on the New York Stock Exchange. In 1949, Hilton purchased the “Greatest of Them All”: the Waldorf-Astoria. In 1954, Hilton Hotels Corporation acquired the Hotels Statler Company for $111 million, the largest real-estate transaction in history at that time. Hilton eventually owned 188 hotels, including the Palmer House in Chicago, the Mayflower in D.C., as well as both the Plaza and the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. Hilton hotels could be found in 38 American cities and 54 locations overseas.
The Depression had taught Hilton humility, and reinforced in him the importance of faith. “When everything material failed,” he wrote, “faith remained the only gilt-edged security.” Moreover, the Depression impressed upon Hilton the trust and good will of those who had seen him through his most trying times. A man whose success had been made possible by so many others could not help but return the kindness.
In 1944, Hilton started the Conrad Hilton Foundation. The day after the fund was established, Hilton received a request from one of the Catholic Sisters of Loretto, who had taught him his catechism as a child in New Mexico. She was raising money to build a new gymnasium and hoped he might help. “Dear Sister,” Hilton replied, “I received your letter of recent date. I am sure you have been praying extra hard, for your campaign has begun and ended.” There would be more such letters to follow.
Over the next 35 years, the Conrad Hilton Foundation would award many small grants, with special solicitude for the work of Catholic sisters and those who help children. Even more than through his foundation, Hilton gave generously from his personal wealth and talents. In his last will and testament, Hilton wrote:
Be ever watchful for the opportunity to shelter little children with the umbrella of your charity; be generous to their schools, their hospitals, and their places of worship. For, as they must bear the burdens of our mistakes, so are they in their innocence the repositories of our hopes for the upward progress of humanity. Give aid to their protectors and defenders, the Sisters, who devote their love and life’s work for the good of mankind, for they appeal especially to me as being deserving of help from the Foundation.
In addition to his support for Catholic education, Hilton was generous to charitable health-care providers, both Catholic and non-Catholic. He led the capital campaign for St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. In 1972, Hilton committed $10 million to build a research center at the Mayo Clinic.
Hilton was a staunch opponent of communism. As he bluntly told the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1950: “The essence of Communism is the death of the individual and the burial of his remains in a collective mass.” Hilton firmly believed that his hospitality business could be an example of cooperation and goodwill in a perilously divided world. “Each of our hotels,” Hilton said, “is a ‘Little America,’ not as a symbol of bristling power, but as a friendly center where men of many nations and of good will may speak the language of peace.” Hilton also made sure his international hotels sourced local materials, and trained and hired local workers. Display the decency and goodness of American values in the Communists’ own backyard, Hilton thought, and the world would note the contrast.
Hilton believed that prayer was a vital force in what he called the “Battle for Freedom.” On July 4, 1952, at the height of the Korean War, he published in magazines across the country a humble prayer for peace and forgiveness in a darkening world, titled “America on Its Knees.” It received an overwhelming response, and a year later, Hilton hosted the first National Prayer Breakfast, alongside President Eisenhower.
When Hilton died in 1979, the Conrad Hilton Foundation held some $160 million in assets. He left virtually his entire fortune to the foundation. “Charity is a supreme virtue,” he wrote, “and the great channel through which the mercy of God is passed on to mankind. It is the virtue that unites men and inspires their noblest efforts.”
~ Stephen White