Pittsburgher of the Year: Max King
Max King has authored a biography on Fred Rogers and run The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments. But his stamp on Pittsburgh goes even deeper — and he’s not done yet.
Maxwell King sips tea in his elegant Squirrel Hill living room, a morning ritual for a man who’s working hard to get the hang of retirement.
He means it this time — honest — even though his first three tries ended in miserable failure.
Now 75, his signature beard more white than gray, King sits in a chair with his two large dogs, a poodle and a Labradoodle, sprawled at his feet. Paintings of famous Pittsburgh artists line the tan walls above him. Stacked on a little table are a few copies of “The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers,” his New York Times best seller about today’s most beloved Pittsburgher.
On a raw November day, King’s living room is a cozy, quiet retreat — and one that he deserves after a recent near-death experience and a breakneck career that packed in one prestigious title after another: Editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. President of the Heinz Foundation. Co-chair of the Riverlife Task Force. Director of the Fred Rogers Center. CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation. And now, official biographer of Fred Rogers.
The whole kick-back-and-rest-on-your-mile-long-resume thing has never come easily to King. Each time he tried to retire, the siren call of Pittsburgh summoned him back to take yet another high-powered leadership job.
Today his imprint is all over his adopted hometown — on the bike trails he rides on regularly, the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship fund, the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, early childhood and anti-poverty programs in various neighborhoods.
For the many civic-minded things he has accomplished since arriving here from Philadelphia two decades ago, King is our 2019 Pittsburgher of the Year. It’s an honor he never could have imagined getting in a city he never expected to call home.
Writing is part of Max King’s DNA. He got his full name — Maxwell Evarts Perkins King — from his grandfather, Maxwell Evarts Perkins, the legendary Scribner’s editor who discovered and nurtured great writers such as Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe.
King, who grew up in the eastern Ohio steel town of Alliance before going to high school in New England, was only 4 when his maternal grandfather died, so he never got to know the famous man of letters. But he spent his childhood immersed in literature before going on to study the subject at Harvard.
After a career as a journalist that included stops at several daily newspapers and Forbes magazine, in 1990 King became editor of then-mighty Philadelphia Inquirer. He left the Inquirer in 1999 and was writing occasional opinion pieces while his wife, Peggy, was busy raising goats on their farm in Chester County outside of Philadelphia when out of the blue he received a call about a job in Pittsburgh.
The offer had nothing to do with his writing or reporting skills. Instead, he was asked if he would like to interview for the position of president of the Heinz Endowments, one of the country’s largest philanthropic organizations.
Shocked, King said he would think about it. He asked Peggy if she wanted to leave behind their bucolic life in the country and move to an economically struggling city on the other side of the state. A foundation in Pittsburgh? She was shocked, too.
Despite his initial skepticism, King figured it wouldn’t hurt to fly in for an interview. And as he walked through the streets of Pittsburgh, the man who had spent his childhood in a small Ohio steel town felt an affinity for a larger post-industrial city struggling to reinvent itself.
“I’m going to be unfair to Philadelphia,” he says. “But Philadelphia always seemed to me a little bit insecure, close to Washington and New York, and a little bit pretentious.
“What I loved about Pittsburgh was: it’s just Pittsburgh. It’s in the middle of nowhere. It doesn’t compare itself to anything else, and it’s utterly without pretense.”
Read More: Previous Pittsburghers of the Year.
By choosing a lifelong newspaperman, the Heinz Endowments had made an unconventional choice. But Andre Heinz, son of Teresa Heinz Kerry and current chairman of the board of the Heinz Endowments, says it was “a perfect match. As a newspaper editor, he had the ability to see the big picture” and communicate it effectively.
At first, King figured that the management skills he’d developed leading a large metro daily would transfer to running a foundation. But it was actually his reporting instincts that made him such a good fit. Just as he used to research in-depth pieces for the Sunday paper, he would dig into important civic issues in Pittsburgh in the same thorough way — plus he knew how to tell a complicated story.
As a good newspaper reporter, King always strived to keep himself and his opinions out of the articles he was writing. But as the activist executive of a powerful foundation he was able to jump right in and assert himself when he wanted.
For example, in 2002, he and executives of other foundations stirred up a major controversy by announcing that they would withhold funds from the Pittsburgh Public Schools because of serious governance issues.
As a journalist, King knew how to frame the issue, and he explained the foundations’ position at a press conference. He acknowledges that many people thought it was wrong for the foundations to use their money to intrude on the school district’s affairs. But he believes it was the right thing to do because he says it shook things up and led to new leadership.
It’s often said that Pittsburgh is a tough town for an outsider to break into. But King says when he arrived he found everyone friendly and inviting. When he mentioned the warm reception he received to a local community leader, he was given a quick reality check. “Max, you are giving out $70 million a year. Maybe that’s why they like you.”
But Doug Root, who was King’s communications director for The Heinz Endowments and is now vice president of communications for The Pittsburgh Foundation, believes the immediate acceptance King got went beyond his role as a grant giver.
“He knew how to speak the language of wealthy and influential people and get them to care about things,” Root says. “He had a talent for folding himself into the upper levels of Pittsburgh power society. That’s not an easy thing to do.
“A lot of people come to town with positions as powerful as him and are not successful. He had this way of both ingratiating himself and also letting people know he wanted to accomplish things and leave a record behind him.”
As head of a powerful foundation, King was able to influence the city’s civic leaders to address economic issues, the environment, literacy and round up additional financial support for the programs or groups, Andre Heinz says.
For instance, his first year King led The Heinz Endowments to make a major grant to establish the Riverlife Task Force, the group behind the waterfront renovation project that brought vibrancy and community to the city’s riverbanks.
During one meeting, the task force was discussing the farthest boundary of its focus along the banks of the Monongahela River, which at the time stopped at the 10th Street Bridge. Because the Hot Metal Bridge at the other end of the South Side was being renovated to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians, King suggested extending the task force’s development corridor there. Some members of the executive committee resisted stretching the project any farther than was called for in the original plans.
King was incredulous.
“Why not?” he asked. “We absolutely have to be opportunistic and extend it to the Hot Metal Bridge,” King said, according to his friend Edie Shapira, then a Riverlife board member and now chairman of the board of The Pittsburgh Foundation.
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“Many of us see boundaries, and we stop at the boundaries,” Shapira says. “He was thinking of the vision, not the rules.”
King rallied confidence in the city in the early 2000s at a time when people were worried about its future. “I think what is hard to remember Pittsburgh had the lowest birth rate and highest population of seniors of any city except for Cleveland,” says Lisa Schroeder, the new president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation who served on the Riverlife Task Force. “People were down-and-out about the city and worried about attracting young professionals. Things were a struggle. Max set a note of optimism when people really needed it. A key part was embracing the beauty of the environment and topography.”
King also thought big a few years later when he approached UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff about providing funding for Pittsburgh Promise, the program the city had started to give college scholarships to students graduating from Pittsburgh Public Schools.
On the taxi ride over, Superintendent Mark Roosevelt threw out the number $10 million, King recalls. But King knew Romoff liked big ideas, and King suggested a much bigger number — $100 million. When King suggested that huge figure, the health executive said yes.
Just as he never set out to be a foundation executive, King didn’t set out to write the official biography of the Pittsburgher famous for his zip-up cardigans and dusty blue sneakers.
His fascination with Fred Rogers began in 2008 after King left the Heinz Endowments and tried his second retirement — which lasted about as long as a cat nap. Within a few months, he had a new title as director of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.
King’s primary duty was to raise lots of money to jump-start the center’s media programming, but he quickly realized something important was missing about the center named for a cultural icon who had died in 2003.
“Why isn’t there a biography of Fred?” he asked Rogers’ widow, Joanne.
“Fred never wanted one,” Joanne said.
“With all due respect,” King said, “Fred is gone and you’re asking me to raise $2 to 4 million to get this center going. We ought to have a biography.”
By the time King’s two-year contract was up at the Fred Rogers Center, Joanne finally came around to his way of thinking about a book about her husband’s life.
“You do it,” she told King.
Read More: Max King: Gratitude in the Face of Death
King tried to get the famed Pittsburgh historian David McCullough to write the Rogers biography, but McCullough was busy with other projects. King had just had his small book of poetry, “Crossing Laurel Run,” published by Autumn House Press in Pittsburgh, but he had never written a biography. McCullough agreed to sit down with King and advised him on the sometimes grueling process of immersing yourself in a famous person’s life.
While he worked on the Rogers book, King and his wife Peggy moved into a house on 40 acres in the scenic mountains north of Stowe, Vermont. Compared to the bustle of a newsroom and foundation office, the countryside was quiet. Too quiet.
One day, Peggy asked King if he needed anything at the grocery store. “Can I go with you?” he asked, desperate to see other people.
When the phone call came from his friend Shapira asking him to consider coming back to the city to lead The Pittsburgh Foundation, King was ready. He asked his family what they thought his answer should be.
“Yes,” Peggy told him. “You need to go back to work.”
So in 2014, King moved back to western Pennsylvania and became the CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation. He was back in the game, and over the next five years, he would raise $270 million for the community foundation, and $22.5 million in grants were distributed under “100 percent Pittsburgh,” his organizing principle for the 30 percent of people left behind in the area’s resurgence.
He also finished his biography in time for the 50th anniversary of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The reporter in him had tracked down as-yet untold stories from Rogers’ childhood, such as the time his grandmother took 10-year-old Fred down to the Steinway & Sons store on Liberty Avenue and little Rogers pointed to a Steinway grand piano. Amazingly, his grandmother bought the extravagant gift on the spot. Rogers had the piano the rest of his life, using it on the set of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” as he sang the songs he wrote for generations of kids.
“The Good Neighbor” book came out in 2018, before a Fred Rogers documentary, a new movie starring Tom Hanks as Rogers and many articles. Joanne Rogers — by then a close friend of Max and Peggy King — loved the book.
King was due to leave the Pittsburgh Foundation in September 2019 in what would count as his fourth attempt at retirement. But he left a few months early after being rushed to UPMC Presbyterian with a slow bleed in his intestine. The slow bleed turned to a fast bleed and his artery burst. When he heard the way the surgeon said they needed to get the artery plugged immediately, King knew it was a matter of life and death.
King lived to tell about his brush with Ultimate Retirement. By Thanksgiving of last year, he was almost back to full strength, and he was looking for ideas for another book to keep his mind sharp while planning visits to see his grandkids. He was back to biking again on the Great Allegheny Passage, the bike trail he helped fund, walking his dogs in the parks he helped beautify and exploring the city he fell in love with that became his adopted home.
So far, it looks like King had finally succeeded at retirement. But at The Pittsburgh Foundation, Shapira laughed at the notion that he’ll ride quietly into the sunset.
“I don’t think Max knows the meaning of the word retire,” she says. “He is built to help and act and move people to be engaged. He is a force of nature.”
Editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer
President of the Heinz Endowments
Director of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe
Writing book in Vermont
President and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation