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Religious CEOs: Hilton Hotels Founder, Conrad Hilton


The founder of the hotel chain had always been intimately familiar with the hotel business. And the Lord.

Who has a birthday celebrated on December 25, had early exposure to people who needed a room at an inn, was on a mission to save the world from suffering, and stressed the power of prayer?

No doubt your guess is Conrad Nicholson Hilton.

Born December 25, 1887 in the small town of San Antonio in the New Mexico Territory, the founder of the Hilton Hotels chain had never been a stranger to the hotel business. Or the Lord.

From the time he was just a boy, Hilton helped his hardworking Norwegian immigrant father -- a man he credits with having "a method of spreading good will" -- turn the family's adobe house into an inn for traveling salesmen, all the while heeding the message of prayer espoused by his devout Catholic mother and the Catholic Sisters of his alma mater, St. Michael's College.

Like his father, Hilton worked hard and prayed hard. But by the time he was 23 years old, he had been working for 11 years -- primarily at his father's general store -- and was tired of chasing someone else's dream.

"So far I had earned a partnership in a store in the town in which I was born," explains Hilton in his autobiography, Be My Guest. "But it was my father's store. A.H. Hilton & Son. A.H. Hilton & Shadow? A small voice within me was questioning. Wasn't it time I formulated a dream of my own?"

The year after the death of his father -- which occurred in 1918 while Hilton was in France serving in the Army in World War I -- he prayed. But he also bought a hotel. The 40-room Mobley Hotel in Cisco, Texas, to be precise, which laid the foundation for an empire that would be built in three stages: first, by the leasing and renovation of old hotels; second, by the erection of new hotels on leased land primarily in Texas; and third, by the purchasing of existing hotels at low prices.

How this trio led to one of the largest hotel chains in the world, as he saw it, was chiefly a matter of faith in another Trinity -- possibly the single greatest influence on his life. A deep devotion to God pervaded both his business and personal life, carrying him through the bankruptcy he nearly faced during the Great Depression when he lost profits and some of his hotels, and the crumbling of his marriage to first wife Mary Adelaide Baron in 1934, with whom he had three children. (This marriage led to the family line that includes socialites Paris and Nicky Hilton, Conrad's great-granddaughters.)

Hilton's faith continued to be tested, despite the successful expansion of his hotel empire to other parts of the country and around the world. In 1942, he married Hungarian actress, Zsa Zsa Gabor, in a civil ceremony, but the Catholic Church refused to recognize it and would no longer allow him to participate in Church sacraments. A bad omen for the marriage indeed: The couple separated only two years later after having one child. Hilton would go on to remarry one last time -- a union that would also end in divorce.

But Hilton's faith was unwavering -- and so were his work ethic and ability to "dream big." "Success seems to be connected with action," he said. "Successful men keep moving. They make mistakes, but they don't quit."

True to form, in 1944, he took charge again and established The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, a philanthropic trust that "provide[s] funds to nonprofit organizations working to improve the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people throughout the world." Among the foundation's 10 priority areas -- which include ending chronic homelessness and caring for vulnerable children -- is supporting Catholic Sisters, since they had played such an important and influential role in Hilton's life. The Foundation focuses on "developing the business acumen and project management skills of indigenous African Sisters, and supporting the direct-service ministries of Sisters worldwide."

So dedicated was Hilton to the alleviation of worldwide human suffering and the proliferation of the work of Catholic Sisters that he left nearly his entire fortune to the Foundation, stating in his last will and testament: "There is a natural law, a Divine law, that obliges you and me to relieve the suffering, the distressed and the destitute."

By the end of that decade, Hilton made national headlines by purchasing the famed Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, putting his financial problems to bed forever. He went on to author another autobiography entitled Inspirations of an Innkeeper, and a poem entitled "America on Its Knees" -- first published in 1952 and later placed in every Hilton hotel -- in which he asked God to "save us from ourselves…before the darkness falls."

Hilton's own darkness fell at the age of 91, when he died of natural causes in Santa Monica, California. He left behind a legacy of achievements in business and charitable work, and now rests in a Catholic cemetery in Dallas, Texas. Naturally.

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