Sy Holzer, leader of PNC Bank and champion of community, dies at 75
News obituaryHumble philanthropist and titan of industry

Sy Holzer, leader of PNC Bank and champion of community, dies at 75

"Sy was not only a gifted corporate leader, he was a gift to the community and to everyone he met."

Sy Holzer and his grandchildren (Photo courtesy of Brian Holzer)
Sy Holzer and his grandchildren (Photo courtesy of Brian Holzer)

Sylvan “Sy” Holzer didn’t see himself as a titan of industry. But his resume might prove otherwise.

Born in Pittsburgh shortly after World War II — near the peak of the city’s international prominence — Holzer capped a 45-year career in southwestern Pennsylvania with PNC Bank as its regional president from 1997 until his retirement in 2017. Among other things, Holzer was key, several said, in christening the region’s new Major League Baseball stadium 23 years ago with PNC’s name.

After graduating from Taylor Allderdice High School in 1966, Holzer received degrees from Duquesne University, the Stonier Graduate School of Banking at Rutgers University and the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business-Management Program for Executives.

He was chairman of the board at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. He served on the executive committee of the Children’s Hospital Foundation’s board. The state Supreme Court appointed Holzer to its judiciary advisory council.

But Holzer, when asked, simply referred to himself as a Pittsburgher.

“He was a really down-to-earth, engaging person,” said Brian Holzer, his son, a Penn State alum who runs a health care company in Louisville, Kentucky. “He talked the exact same way to professional athletes — Steelers, Pirates, Penguins — as he did to the parking attendant.

“He brought companies here, he brought executives here and he never once asked for credit for it,” his son added. “It was always all about the city and the people.”

Holzer, a powerful Pittsburgh executive who never lost touch with his humility or his Jewish roots, died in his sleep on June 16. He was 75.

Holzer was born on Jan. 25, 1949, to Max and Charlotte Holzer, two Holocaust survivors who fled Europe after the war.

Holzer was raised in an Orthodox household in Squirrel Hill, his son said. Yiddish was spoken frequently.

Though Holzer was not deeply observant, his son said, Judaism and his cultural Jewishness were important to him. As he climbed the ranks in corporate America, he often was not surrounded by Jewish peers.

“He felt he needed to give a positive reflection on the Jewish community in everything he did,” Brian Holzer said. “I wouldn’t call it a burden. But I think he wanted to reflect a good impression of Judaism and of Jewish people.”

At PNC Bank, Holzer held executive positions in corporate and retail banking, with responsibilities ranging from financial services with large government entities to higher education institutions to health care organizations and labor unions throughout Pennsylvania.

Philanthropy was also important to Holzer.

He served on the board of trustees of the University of Pittsburgh and on the board of visitors for the Katz Graduate School of Business and Health Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. He also served on the board of directors of the Bethany Board of Trustees.

And with the Fred Rogers Foundation.

And with the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

From 2011 to 2019, Holzer was a board member of the Pittsburgh Opera. The opera’s former board chair Michele Fabrizi — the retired president and CEO of Marc USA, one of the nation’s largest advertising firms — said Holzer left a big impression.

“To me, Sy was not only a gifted corporate leader, he was a gift to the community and to everyone he met,” Fabrizi said.

“People think of him as an excellent executive,” she added. “But Sy’s superpower was his ability to listen.”

Holzer was inducted into the Taylor Allderdice Hall of Fame in 2013.

His Jewish life also was an important piece of the puzzle that formed the man.

“Sy loved Pittsburgh — I saw it in his office at PNC, filled with Pittsburgh sports history,” said Jeff Finkelstein, who’s served as president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh since 2004. “He also cared about our Jewish Federation, and we worked together to launch our PNC Community Builders Award. His legacy of kindness will reverberate going forward.”

In 1998, right before Finkelstein joined the Federation, the agency’s community campaign exceeded $10 million for the first time in its history, Finkelstein said.

“Sy Holzer was the one who secured the $100,000 gift from PNC Bank that put the campaign over the goal,” he said.

Holzer also worked with Finkelstein to create the PNC Community Builders Award in 2004. Finkelstein presented the award to Daniel H. Shapira that year, with a $25,000 gift to the Federation from PNC accompanying the award in Shapira’s honor.

Holzer served on numerous Federation committees, including work on the Jewish Association on Aging, Riverview Towers and Montefiore Hospital, according to Adam Hertzman, the Federation’s associate vice president of marketing.

Holzer also served on the Jewish Federation of North America’s National Young Leadership Conference.
“Those values never changed,” Brian Holzer said. “He always had those values, Jewish values.”

Dr. Stanley Marks, chairman of UPMC Hillman, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Holzer was a lifelong friend. They meet at age 5 on their way to classes at Hillel Academy.

“He never forgot his roots,” Marks told the Trib. “He always wanted to help people. Whether it was getting a job or an interview or just advice, he was always lending a hand, particularly to the people who needed it most.

“He was just a genuinely caring, compassionate person,” Marks added. “He loved his family, he loved his friends and he loved his community.”

Holzer raised his children, Brian and Jodie, at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, where both became a b’nei mitzvah. They later attended services at Temple Emanuel of South Hills.

Brian Holzer remembers little details about his father’s adherence to faith and ritual. When Brian moved back to Pittsburgh to work at Highmark from 2013 to 2017, he and his wife bought a home in the North Hills. The elder Holzer insisted that a rabbi bless the Wexford house; he mounted mezuzot in every doorway.

“There’s never going to be another person like this — the selflessness and the humility? You don’t see that anymore,” Brian Holzer said. “He just loved the city, and he just loved the people who lived there … He always found a way to do the right thing.”

Holzer is survived by his wife of 54 years, Cathy; his brother Dennis; his two children, Brian and Jodie; and five grandchildren.

Ralph Schugar Chapel in Shadyside handled services on June 20. Holzer was buried at Mount Lebanon Cemetery. PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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