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Conrad Hilton: A Legacy of Giving

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The man who turned 40 hotel rooms in Texas into a worldwide empire believed that charity is a supreme virtue.

On Jan. 3, 1979, Conrad Hilton died at the age of 91 after six decades spent building one of the world's foremost business empires. Today he may be best remembered as a recurring character on Mad Men or for the real-life adventures of his photogenic descendants like Paris and Nicky, but Conrad Hilton first secured his legacy with a worldwide chain of hotels that bear his name. After his death, that name took on a new meaning, thanks to the charitable works carried out in his memory.

Born into a large family in San Antonio, New Mexico, Hilton got his first taste of business working in his father's general store. He started his own business in 1919 with the purchase of a 40-room hotel in Cisco, Texas, and then expanded slowly to build the world's first international hotel chain. When he died, he owned 188 hotels across the United States and 54 more around the world, and had diversified his empire with the purchase of the Carte Blanche Credit Co. and interests in car rental, sugar and other enterprises.

What he did with his wealth was determined largely by the religious principles instilled in Hilton by his mother, a devout Roman Catholic. She taught him to turn to prayer when in need, and Hilton's faith led him to write in his final will:

"There is a natural law, a Divine law, that obliges you and me to relieve the suffering, the distressed and the destitute. Charity is a supreme virtue, 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."

His belief in the importance of charity, and his duty to aid people in need, led him in 1944 to create what became one of the world's largest humanitarian funds, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. But it was not until his death, and the revelation that the foundation would be his chief beneficiary, that the foundation came to be a real force in international humanitarian work. Funded by 3.5 million shares of the highly valuable Hilton Hotel Co., the foundation currently controls more than $2.2 billion in assets and has awarded more than $1 billion in grants.

Originally charged in Hilton's will with a mission to "relieve the suffering, the distressed, and the destitute," the foundation focuses on providing safe water in developing countries, ending chronic homelessness, preventing substance abuse, helping children affected by HIV and AIDS, helping children transition out of foster care, and supporting Catholic nuns working with poor and vulnerable populations around the world. In addition, the foundation is dedicated to combating sight loss and multiple sclerosis, providing relief after natural disasters, supporting Roman Catholic education and assisting students in the hospitality industry. The foundation awards the annual Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize to a nongovernmental organization that makes outstanding contributions to alleviating human suffering. The $1.5 million prize is the world's largest humanitarian award.

The two sides of Hilton's legacy, the hugely profitable company and immensely prolific philanthropy, are shining examples of America's economic ambition and charitable drive. Hilton's fusion of the two stands as a testament to the foresight and dedication of the man who turned 40 hotel rooms in Texas into a worldwide empire.

Written by Seth Joseph