It should come as no surprise that the Germanic origins of Harold Bigler’s first name denote leadership and power.
But apart from those traits, perhaps more wondrous to those who knew “Hal” was the Pittsburgh resident’s gentlemanly and kind nature.
He was a “classic in the very best sense of that word,” said Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom Congregation, “a genuinely good man, whose unfailingly positive outlook on life and for people encouraged and inspired and lifted every one of us up.”
Hal Bigler, a longtime supporter of Jewish communal causes, died on Feb. 15. He was 91.
Born to Samuel and Fannie Bigler, Hal was the youngest of three children.
“He was a spoiled brat in a way,” joked his wife Bette. “He had two older sisters who doted on him and a mother too, and father too. He was very well loved.”
Bigler grew up on Lilac Street in Squirrel Hill, celebrated his bar mitzvah at Congregation Poale Zedeck and graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School, where despite measuring only 5’9″ and 160 pounds, he played center and middle linebacker for the football team. During his senior season he was team captain.
After graduation, Bigler joined the Navy’s V-12 program, served on a ship in the European theater and was eventually discharged as a lieutenant commander. In 1944, he enrolled at Bucknell University and played for the school’s football team.
His college experience engendered one of his proudest moments, explained Stanley Levine, a lifelong friend and 1943 teammate of Bigler’s at Allderdice: Bigler used to say that Bucknell’s head coach, Ellwood “Woody” Ludwig, “made some remark that he never met a Jew before, but that Hal was a credit to his race.”
In 1945, Bigler transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where he lettered and played center. Upon graduation, he returned to Pittsburgh, first to work at Gimbels and later at Babb Inc., a Pittsburgh-based insurance brokerage where he eventually became president.
Harold was an important leader in the Jewish community many decades ago, but his legacy of volunteerism and leadership will be felt for a long time.
When he was 25, he met Bette Joan Shapiro, a 20-year-old student at Pennsylvania College for Women. The two were set up by Mina Kavaler, whose husband had been a fraternity brother of Bigler’s.
“My father-in-law was [Bette’s] dentist and he wanted me to look her up and find somebody for her,” said Kavaler. “I thought that she was very pretty and [Hal] would be interested. He was single and most of my friends at the time were already attached and I thought what a perfect match and it was.”
The couple married on Oct. 19, 1952.
After more than two decades at Babb, Bigler and board chairman Chandler Ketchum were fired. The two went on to form an eponymous brokerage firm, which was subsequently acquired in 1992 by Hilb, Rogal and Hamilton Co. of Pittsburgh Inc.
Bigler recounted elements of the period to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2003: “We didn’t let this whole thing embitter us. Here we were terminated after 25 years with two weeks’ pay. It was quite a story. If there was sex in the story too, we’d have written a book about it…We just used whatever money we had available to us at that time. I remember [that] when it happened, we called our wives to set up a dinner meeting at the Duquesne Club, and we finished dinner before we told them what had happened.”
Although Bigler had never been a member of the Duquesne Club, he played an integral role in its history, specifically in terms of its welcoming Jewish members, which began in 1968. According to The Pittsburgh Press, Bigler, as part of the American Jewish Committee’s “Executive Suite” project, investigated “Jewish participation in Pittsburgh corporate life in the 1960s.”
“I know that he felt that it was unfair because Jews were not allowed in there,” said his wife. “A lot of business was done there and he felt that he should do whatever he could to make it a Jewish club as well.”
Bigler served as the first co-chair of the Lev Society at the United Jewish Federation, now known as the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. He also served on numerous committees at Rodef Shalom.
“Harold was an important leader in the Jewish community many decades ago, but his legacy of volunteerism and leadership will be felt for a long time,” said Jeffrey Finkelstein, the Jewish Federation’s president and CEO.
“Hal Bigler, with his perennial sense of optimism, was a figure who made tremendous contributions to his community, his city and his country,” said Bisno.
Harold Bigler is survived by his wife, Bette J. Bigler, sons Marshall S. Bigler and Clifford (Colleen) Bigler, grandson Bryan (Chauncie) Bigler, nephews Matt Lewis, Ritchard Lewis and David Winkler, and nieces Mary Rhonda Lewis, Laura Kraslow and Susan Rosenthal. He was predeceased by sisters Eleanor Lewis and Sylvia Bigler. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.