The memory is still vivid for former Gov. Arne Carlson: Sally Pillsbury in her study in Orono, with her enviable Rolodex, making fundraising calls for his campaign.
“I swear to God no one could say no,” he recalled. “I kind of felt sorry for the people on the other end.”
Pillsbury, a political and philanthropic force in Minnesota for decades, died Saturday night at 93. An active Republican, she fought for gender equity and supported female candidates at a time when women were largely absent from the State Capitol. She and her husband, the late George Pillsbury, were significant patrons to numerous causes and organizations including the University of Minnesota and the Betty Ford Foundation. She was a founding director of the Guthrie Theater board of directors, where she was a life member.
“Sally was a force of nature,” former Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling said. “Both she and George were deeply committed to the civic life and community, and her example, of having strong views but listening deeply and with respect to the other side, is something that we could all use at a time of hyperpartisan politics.”
George and Sally Pillsbury, along with her late brother Wheelock Whitney Jr., were a powerhouse political trio who made an outsized impact on a generation of modern Republicans, former Republican lawmakers said — from Carlson all the way back to former President Dwight Eisenhower. They were deeply influential for decades, starting in the 1950s, and often took a bipartisan approach to issues.
Both Republicans and Democrats noted her impact on Minnesota. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton called her one of the state’s “great civic leaders and a dear friend to my family.” U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she was a staunch believer in women’s rights.
Pillsbury also supported Planned Parenthood and Women Winning, a statewide organization that encourages female candidates who support abortion rights. Her social views were “moderate to liberal,” Carlson said, and “If she was physically able, she would have led the Women’s March. She would have been there with the biggest, darndest pink hat you’ve ever seen.”
Pillsbury grew up in St. Cloud and attended Smith College. Her family was civically engaged in St. Cloud, and family members said she was expected to carry on that tradition. Pillsbury’s daughter, Sarah Pillsbury, said her childhood involved an endless stream of political events, their basement transformed to a workspace during campaign season.
When George Pillsbury decided to run for the Minnesota Senate, Sarah remembers her outrage: she said her mother should run instead. Her mother told her she enjoyed being the organizer.
Former Republican U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger has another theory on why Pillsbury didn’t run: She was too outspoken and would never have listened to a campaign manager, he joked. She was self-confident and would tell Durenberger what she thought he should do, he said, but she never flaunted her powerful name, wealth or connections.
Sally and George, who was the grandson of the Pillsbury Co. founder, had lived along the Lake Minnetonka shore, where they hosted grand events and prominent people, including the Bushes. George Pillsbury and George H.W. Bush were college friends.
“She’d never strike you as the rich lady,” Durenberger said. “She’s like the girl who grew up next door to you, and you’d be a better person for it.”
Kathleen Blatz, who was married to Wheelock, described her sister-in-law as a “mover and shaker” with a commitment to fun. She was full of energy and could quickly bring people together, friends said. The Guthrie’s Dowling recalled a trip to London years ago when his group got a tour of Westminster Hall, seat of the British government, because Sally knew the speaker of the House of Lords.
“As we were walking through we saw, in the distance coming through the door, Archbishop Tutu,” Dowling said. “Sally took off like a rocket to him, and she brought him over and introduced him to the whole group. It was exactly like George had said: She never met a stranger.”
She was the consummate hostess but would bust out a two-fingered whistle to get the room’s attention, Blatz said.
“It was just so quintessentially Sally Pillsbury to be this lovely lady, and then get down to business real quick,” she said. Family members said she was also a music lover who occasionally performed for guests. She and her brothers even made up a song about the “Whitneys of Orono.”
Pillsbury remained involved in politics until late in life, backing Independent Tom Horner in the 2010 governor’s race and supporting ranked-choice voting, friends said. She eventually stopped as her dementia advanced.
A lasting reminder of the Pillsburys’ impact on the Twin Cities is a bench installed in their name at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.
Sally Pillsbury is survived by children Charles, George Jr., Sarah and Katharine. She is also survived by her grandchildren, whom she encouraged to speak their minds and be civically active, said Nora Pillsbury Kletter, her granddaughter.
A memorial service is being planned for the early spring. In lieu of flowers, a donation may be made in her memory.
Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.org 651-925-5044 email@example.com 612-673-4390