Steven Hilton

On an office bookshelf, near the surfboard decorated with dolphins that leans against a wall, two small and sturdy items stand side by side.

One item, it turns out, is an early version of a Perkins Brailler — a Braille typewriter. The other item is a 6-or-so-inch-tall model of a hand pump.

This is the office of philanthropist extraordinaire Steven Hilton. A member of the LMU Board of Trustees from 1993–98, Hilton has been the president, then CEO and now chairman of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation since 1998.

Hilton joined the foundation as a program assistant in 1983. That’s 39 years after his grandfather founded the philanthropic entity, 12 years prior to the opening of LMU’s Conrad N. Hilton School for Business, 15 years before the creation of the Conrad N. Hilton Endowed Chair of Entrepreneurship, and the same year that Hilton first visited LMU to meet a retired Jesuit priest and family friend named Father Tom Sullivan.

The Brailler on Hilton’s bookshelf was a thank you from the Boston-area school for the blind that Helen Keller attended. The hand pump, likewise offered in gratitude, comes from Mali, where the Hilton Foundation funds the drilling of shallow wells and the purchase of these hard-to-break and easy-to-repair pumps.

“This little well, we look at it and we don’t think anything about water,” Hilton says, holding the model. “But in a small village in West Africa, clean water is the difference between life and death.”

Providing safe water is one of the leading priorities of the Los Angeles and Reno, Nevada-based and globally active Hilton Foundation. So, too, is supporting Catholic education. That is why, among many others reasons, Hilton says, “For us to work with LMU was a natural.”

Indeed, recent Hilton Foundation grants have supported a trio of projects at LMU’s Center for Catholic Education. (These are the Catholic Schools Research Study, Archdiocesan Partner 200-Day Study, and the Future of Catholic Education in Los Angeles Planning Initiative.) The foundation is also a significant backer of the Center for Service Learning in the School of Education.

“We try to be thoughtful and disciplined and analytical in how we approach what we do,” Hilton says of the foundation. These are qualities he sees in LMU as well: “We’re both institutions,” he says, “that are guided by a mission, and embedded in the mission are values.”

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer. His works on a wide variety of topics have appeared in dozens of anthology books, magazines and websites. Follow or contact him @LosJeremy.