Pittsburgher of the Year

There’s something magical about Bill Strickland. On our single meeting, he was tired, patient beyond belief answering dozens of familiar questions, and plagued by a hoarseness that would prevent a planned recorded reading from his book, Making the Impossible Possible, published at the end of 2007.

In that hour or so of conversation, he convinced this skeptical writer of his overwhelming determination to embrace each new dream, meet anyone—from the homeless on the street to the powerful people of boardrooms, from the welfare moms to the Fox Chapel matrons—with the same openness and respect.

His “how-to” book on achieving success is no ordinary 10-steps-to-your-Mercedes and summering in Mykonos. It’s a definition of success that anyone can achieve. It requires “owning up to our responsibilities as citizens of the planet, even in modest ways, [which] generates a sense of purpose and power in our life that is the real engine behind genuine success.”

For Strickland “true success” comes from “the point where your passions, values, talents and dreams fall into alignment with the genuine desire to make the world a better place to live for all of its inhabitants.”

As founder and head of Manchester Bidwell Corp., Strickland describes himself as “a guy who never forgot where he came from, and who knows first-hand how the realities of race and circumstance, and poverty and lowered expectations, can crush human dreams.” His job is to rekindle those dreams and allow people to lead successful lives. In the last 40-plus years, he has done exactly that for thousands of students and adults touched by Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and Bidwell Training Center.

Everyone calls him “Bill.” And William E. Strickland Jr., president and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corp., will slip your first name into every other sentence when he talks to you. But he knows he’s the boss. He gravitates naturally to the head of a distinctive Tadao Arimoto boardroom table—topped by a single slice of black walnut with flaws and all—in a cozy room next to what might be the tiniest president/CEO’s office in town. Yes, those are orchids on a side table, and they’re from the orchid center he established. Strickland, a tall man in standard corporate clothing, connects quickly with people, makes them comfortable and soft-sells them on his common-sense approach to growing successful lives out of the least likely circumstances.

“He has a singular vision that is about helping others,” says Glenn R. Mahone, Manchester Bidwell board chairman and an attorney with Reed Smith, “and a dogged tenacity and courage to sustain that vision.”

Even at Harvard University, where a group of graduate business-school faculty did a case study on the mission of the Manchester Bidwell Corp. (MBC) on three separate occasions, Strickland got a standing ovation when he first addressed the M.B.A. students. “The kids loved it,” he says. The professor told him, “They don’t give standing ovations at the Harvard business school.” But they did for Bill Strickland.

Pittsburgh magazine applauds him, too, as Pittsburgher of the Year for 2007. His vision, energy and commitment to bettering lives over four decades make him a natural choice, and what better time than when two of the organizations he has led have grown and prospered and are now celebrating 40th anniversaries: Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and Bidwell Training Center.

the Organization

Bill Strickland, 60, heads a three-pronged organization that comprises Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (MCG), which offers art classes for students, a jazz program and an art gallery; a replication program supported by the National Center for Arts & Technology; and the 40-year-old Bidwell Training Center (BTC), which prepares adults for work. Strickland founded MCG in 1968 and took over BTC in 1972.

The corporation, first formed in 1968, occupies three buildings near the Ohio River in two blocks of Metropolitan Street in Manchester, a North Side community bisected by Ohio River Boulevard. Visitors to the MBC campus have included first lady Hillary Clinton and George L. Carey, archbishop of Canterbury.

Strickland’s small office is located at 1815 Metropolitan St., and this building is clearly the heart of the operation. The 62,000-square-foot unnamed building is warm and friendly, designed by local architect Tasso Katselas. It features adobe-colored bricks, curved arches and skylights, and contains enough art in its permanent collection to qualify as a museum. Handmade quilts hang in the lobby. There’s a K. Leroy Irvis wood sculpture, an African mask and a black wire sculpture with obvious symbolism shows one person standing on a balcony pulling up another hanging over the side.

The 70,000-square-foot Harbor Gardens building, built in 2000, houses MBC staff and BTC training facilities as well as commercial tenants.

Opening in 2002, the 40,000-square-foot Drew Mathieson Center for Horticultural and Agricultural Technology is named for the late Andrew Mathieson, one of Strickland’s early mentors and the long-time executive vice president of Richard K. Mellon and Sons and trustee and treasurer of the Richard King Mellon Foundation, which provided grants to Manchester Bidwell. It is an amazing state-of-the-art greenhouse for training BTC students.

SUCCESS stories

So what are some of the criteria Pittsburgh magazine considered in conferring its Pittsburgher of the Year designation on Strickland? Here are a few examples of Strickland success stories:

  • High school seniors who participate (any high school student is eligible) in MCG courses either in their own schools, in after-school programs or in summer programs at MCG graduate and go on to college at rates of 75 percent to 90 percent.

  • Adults in BTC training courses at the Drew Mathieson Center have won first-, second- and third-place ribbons from the Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania. They grow orchids for Giant Eagle, Whole Foods Market and several retail florists. They also grow hydroponic tomatoes and pepper plants.

  • The MCG jazz component, which features some of the best jazz artists in the nation, won its fourth Grammy Award last year for Nancy Wilson’s Turned to Blue in the “Best Jazz Vocal Album” category.

  • Strickland has initiated a guided replication of his programs in other cities through the National Center for Arts and Technology. Cincinnati’s center, which opened in 2003, saw a 93 percent graduation rate among seniors served last year. The Grand Rapids center, serving ninth- to 11th-graders, maintained an 85 percent retention rate. It’s “spectacular,” says Strickland, who is given to deserving superlatives.

  • Strickland received the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in arts and education in 2007. The award was being presented for the first time in 2007, and there were 24 finalists who were chosen based on financial growth, risks taken, personal story and contribution to the community. Strickland was chosen as the winner by a panel of Ernst & Young employees.

  • In September 2007, Strickland was invited to a global symposium on spirituality conducted by the Vienna-based Waldzell Institute. He and some others attending were inducted into the institute. The Waldzell Institute encourages individuals to quest for a meaningful life. The inductees included Tenzin Gyatso (the Dalai Lama), exiled head of state and spiritual leader of Tibet; Patriarch Alexy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church; Rabbi David Rosen, chairman of the International Jewish Committee, which specializes in relations with other religions; Sir Paul M. Nurse, a British biochemist and winner of a 2001 Nobel Prize; California architect Frank Gehry, noted for such futuristic structures as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. “And me!” adds Strickland with a chuckle. “Not bad for Oliver High School,” his alma mater.

Not surprisingly, Strickland hit it off well with the Dalai Lama. “He’s an extraordinary man. Gentle. Thoughtful. He listens. He’s extremely quick, very witty. You know the guy flows. When he walks into the room, you see this radiance around the man. It’s really powerful.”

Among his recent achievements, Strickland forgets to mention his book, Making the Impossible Possible, a Doubleday product, written with Pittsburgh native Vince Rause, which was due out in bookstores in late 2007.

And there’s more: Strickland serves on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. He visits the White House often. “Nice place,” he says. “Great lamb chops.” The first President Bush appointed him to the National Endowment for the Arts board. He visited the White House, too, to accept the Kilby Award for his work with MCG and a “Coming Up Taller” Award for his work with MCG’s youth program from first lady Hillary Clinton. In 1996, he received a “Genius in the Arts” MacArthur Fellows Program Award.

getting it GOING

While he was still a student at the University of Pittsburgh, Strickland founded the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in 1968 in the 1200 block of Pennsylvania Avenue in the North Side’s Manchester neighborhood. His father, William Strickland, helped him set up. The senior William Strickland was a former Army sergeant and cook—one of the jobs African-American soldiers were allowed to perform at the time, says his son. He eventually joined the Bidwell Training Center as a pastry chef instructor.

But the impetus for Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild had begun several years earlier when Stickland met art teacher Frank Ross at Oliver High School and asked to learn how to make pots. Ross not only taught him ceramics, an art he still uses to relax, along with growing roses, but the teacher also took him into his home, had him to dinner with his family and introduced him to jazz. “He changed my life,” says Strickland.

In addition, Ross convinced Pitt to admit Strickland on probation to major in history. He graduated cum laude in 1969. He has served on the University of Pittsburgh board of trustees since 1997, received an honorary degree there, and addressed the graduating class in 2002.

“Even though I had wonderful parents,” Strickland says, “poverty in the neighborhood and sort of a larger issue of race really have a way of preventing African-American kids from formulating positive role models and acquiring experience to function in society successfully.”

In 1968, when civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, riots erupted in African-American areas across the nation. Manchester was not spared. “People were getting shot on the streets; the town was on fire,” Strickland recounts. Strickland wanted to help and figured if Frank Ross’ clay instruction had turned his life around, the same might prove true for other kids from the North Side. He recruited about 15 high school students to a Buena Vista Street site, where MCG moved and was located for a time. He lived upstairs; his bed was a sleeping bag. He began an apprenticeship program in the arts. He stresses that he was never turning out artists. That wasn’t the point. It’s still not.

Take photography: Kids really learn mechanical and technical skills in traditional and digital photography—how to operate a camera, take pictures and print pictures using chemistry and other techniques in darkrooms or employing software and computers in classrooms. “They are allowed to use their creative energy and their skill to produce and get a result,” says Strickland. Parents, Pittsburgh public-school teachers, friends, neighbors come to see the students’ work at the Connie Kerr Gallery, named for a former board member and friend of the organization. The recognition works.

“We have found,” says Strickland, leaning forward for emphasis, “that that is a very powerful antidote to a negative self-image. The kids like it. It feels good. And they want more. The message is: If you want to feel like you’re part of the world, you really need to go on to college so you can become a professional and make sense of your life.” Besides photography, MCG offers art courses in ceramics, design arts, textiles, fashion design and printmaking. It also sponsors visiting artists who work with students at MCG as well as in the Pittsburgh public high school classes.

Programs at MCG have drawn between 300 and 500 students annually from nine Pittsburgh public high schools. In the last three years, MCG has taken its program to 11 local middle schools. It also promotes arts integration into the total curriculum at Helen S. Faison Arts Academy, an elementary and middle school in Homewood. It plans on sharing results and best practices with educators and administrators nationally.

One student who has benefited from the MCG experience is Arteeza Simpson, 17, a senior at Brashear High School from Mount Washington, who has attended courses there since she was a freshman. “It’s great,” she says. In Simpson’s case, the exposure to the arts—ceramics, printmaking, sketching, painting, photography—has convinced her that she wants to be an artist. At the time of this interview, she was just getting ready to send off her application to Pratt Institute in New York City. She says Bill Strickland is “a pretty laid-back guy” who shows up in their classes once in a while.

Simpson recalls being impressed when California photographer Norma I. Quintana visited MCG. Other guest artists at MCG have included Tipper Gore (“a brilliant photographer,” says Strickland) and Val Cushing, a leading American master potter. Superstar photographer Annie Leibovitz’s work was displayed in the gallery. “The kids,” says Strickland, “are mentored by some of the greatest artists on the planet.”

Many of the urban youth who take courses at MCG are “at risk.” Strickland defines that as “kids who are highly unlikely to graduate from high school based on poverty, race, physical location, neighborhood.” Teachers recommend them. Kids who have attended MCG programs recruit their friends.

Strickland stands with James Moody, a jazz saxophonist.

 all that JAZZ

Now, in addition to the sights at MCG, you also might experience sounds. Some people say that MCG Jazz, now in its 21st season, exists because Strickland loves jazz and believes it speaks to African-American children. The 348-seat music/lecture hall at MCG where the performances take place is acoustically near perfect, according to Strickland.

The center has been capturing and documenting the live performances of such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Nancy Wilson, Billy Taylor, Joe Williams, Carmen McRea and Herbie Hancock for archival and educational purposes since the inception of MCG Jazz in 1987. In 2000, MCG upgraded its audio and video studios. Over the years, artists have allowed their performances to be recorded by MCG Jazz. “Many of these jazz musicians become spokesmen for the [Bidwell] Center around the country,” says Strickland.

The organization has released several dozen CDs over the past 10 years, five of which were produced in cooperation with Bayer Corp. Four of MCG Jazz’s recordings have won Grammy Awards: Count Basie Orchestra with the New York Voices, Live at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild—”Best Large Jazz Ensemble,” 1996; Brazilian Dreams, by Paquito D’Rivera featuring the New York Voices and Claudio Rodit—a Latin Grammy for “Best Jazz Album,” 2003; Nancy Wilson’s R.S.V.P. (Rare Songs, Very Personal)—”Best Jazz Vocal Album,” 2005; and Nancy Wilson’s Turned To Blue—”Best Jazz Vocal Album,” 2007. Strickland hosts pre-concert dinners to cultivate people’s interest in the programs.


The 40-year-old Bidwell Training Center, which Strickland took over in 1972 from the Rev. James Robinson, who was head of the center for four years, is another component of the MBC, attracting adults from all over the region for career training. “These are people who are on public assistance or had a job and lost a job,” says Strickland. They can study to become culinary artists, chemical laboratory technicians, medical claims processors, medical coders, health unit coordinators, pharmacy technicians and more. BTC enrolls an average of 200 adults a year and assists an average of 400 in academic and support programs. Recent placement rates for graduates stood at 86 percent, according to Ken Husselton, director of student services.

Nancy Hessler isn’t a typical Bidwell graduate. She hadn’t lost a job. This single mom worked two jobs: waitressing at a North Side restaurant and working as an assistant sommelier at a Mount Washington restaurant. She was not really from an underprivileged background, she notes. At the suggestion of a friend, she went along to take a test at BTC to see if she qualified for the chemical laboratory technician program. She scored 93 percent. She signed on in 1991 and took the year-long course. Strickland recommended her to Bayer Corp. in Robinson Township, where she has worked ever since. “I just wish I had done it 10 years earlier,” she says. The story doesn’t end there, though. Bayer paid her tuition at Duquesne University, where she completed a Saturday accelerated bachelor’s degree in communications in 2005.

HOW-TOS for success

Foundations have been very supportive of Strickland over the years. What’s his secret? “Good results. Get the results and be able to validate what you do. That is, good management, good financial record keeping, good performance measurements and a high-quality day-to-day management in terms of facilities. You didn’t walk though a metal detector to get in here. If you went to Oliver High School, you’d have to. That impresses foundations—that we have been able to create a positive learning environment in an inner-city neighborhood.”

And Strickland has even more to say on the subject: “The center, its faculty and other kids change behaviors. You have to build something that looks like a success, and people will be successful. If you build something that looks like a prison, they will act like prisoners.”

And the cost to MCG or BTC participants? There is no cost. Strickland gets the money from a variety of sources—from foundations, from schools for services rendered, from the government, from sales of jazz CDs, orchids and more.

Strickland isn’t out of ideas. He wants to duplicate his work in 100 centers around the country and even 100 more in other countries.

“It’s a logical extension to what he is doing,” says Glenn Mahone. “He is a highly sought-after speaker,” he notes. When he talks in other cities about what he’s doing, the reaction is everybody wants one. So far three are up and running: in Cincinnati, San Francisco and Grand Rapids. The National Center for Arts and Technology will provide technical assistance in operations and programming to affiliated centers for five years.

While branching out nationally, Strickland is focused locally, too. He wants to deepen vocational programs and reach into the Mon Valley.

No, he doesn’t plan on retiring. “I’m going to play this hand out,” he says, while admitting that the MBC board is beginning to recruit for future leadership. Mahone would like to see a three- to five-year search with plans for an overlap of executives.

“Even if I step down, I’ll just go down the street and run the national-centers division or something,” says Strickland. “I spent my whole 60 years in six blocks,” says this man who grew up on Rush Street. “I’ve lived here; I’ll die here. I’m not going anywhere.”

Geographically, no. Otherwise, on the scale of dreams and accomplishments, he’s been to the moon and back. With orchids.

Ann Curran, who shares a favorite former president—JFK—with Bill Strickland, also wrote about last year’s Pittsburghers of the Year, Henry and Elsie Hillman, whom the magazine pictured with presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Categories: Community Feature