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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen. | Show Photo

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Changemakers: Bill Strickland

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He stood there, in Pitt’s Alumni Hall, beaming, accepting well deserved praise for latest achievement, Make the Impossible Possible: One Man's Crusade to Inspire Others to Dream Bigger and Achieve the Extraordinary, a book summing up his wholly remarkable life and philosophy -- that art brought into life can transform people, that building arts centers creates artists, while building prisons creates prisoners.

“I want to remember my history,” Bill Strickland said to Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and 160 of his invitation-only best buddies, “because I think that is a big part of the value of my life -- an example that I might be able to show other kids who may not necessarily fit the ideal mold. Here's a kid that gets in Pitt on probation and graduates and ends up a trustee, and along the way came to understand how the power of ideas and words transform reality.”

A true changemaker, as President and CEO of Manchester Bidwell and its subsidiaries, Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and Bidwell Training Center, Strickland oversees a major jobs training center and community arts program. Working with corporations, community leaders, and schools, Manchester Bidwell, located in the Chateau Street industrial park, between Manchester and the Ohio River, runs programs for at-risk kids and down-on-their-luck adults who need a break, salable skills, a workable vision of a better life.

Although square footage hardly tells the tale, Strickland & Co. created a 40,000 square-foot production greenhouse, 70,000 square-foot medical technology complex, and 62,000 square-foot facility that includes a 350-seat music/lecture hall, library, arts studios, and award-winning audio recording studio. MCG, their own record label, has won Grammys.

Now one might think that Strickland would tire of all the accolades – the honorary doctorates, the trusteeships, the NEA seat, the White House hobnobs. Or that, having risen from humble Mancusian beginnings himself, all this recognition would transform him into a bloated egotist, impossible to reach.

Not true on either count. First, Strickland accepts awards essentially for the people who’ve believed in and given so generously to his programs, and for the people who’ve dared to change their lives, to achieve, to excel. Second, Strickland takes it all in stride because he tries to help his fellow human beings, to promote positive change.

I ought to know. I’ve known Bill Strickland since we were Pitt freshmen. Bill hasn’t changed a bit.

In the Beginning

We met in Rex Peary’s gym class, 18-year-old asthmatics, standing aside as the class ran laps in Trees Hall. “Look at these fools runnin’ ‘round in circles,” he snickered around his inhaler. We’ve been friends ever since.

That was 1965, a time best summarized by Bob Dylan’s line from “Desolation Row:” “everybody’s shouting ‘which side are you on?’” As many people shouted, hectored, inveighed, Bill always spoke calmly, clearly, decently. Bill spoke, and his voice seemed that much more powerful for its quiet conviction.

He began the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in 1968, the year that sections of Pittsburgh were set afire, when the National Guard, camping in Pitt Stadium, rolled tanks down Fifth Avenue. Some reacted with violence, others with apathy or angry rhetoric. Characteristically, Bill began an arts program. In a shabby Buena Vista Street rowhouse, he took the pottery skills he had learned in Oliver High School and began applying that salve to other inner city kids’ wounds.

It was the revolution one child at a time, and it was sufficiently successful to get him noticed by the Bidwell Training Center, which tapped him to head the place.

Never bellicose, badgering, belligerent, or bullying; never playing the race card; never Mau-Mauing anyone, Bill spoke cogently for arts programming and job training. Coming as a good Republican, Bill didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve; instead, he dressed in suits, ties knotted perfectly at the collar, speaking of dollars and sense. “Our people,” he’d say, “get jobs.”

Over the years, I’ve interviewed him any number of times; he appears in two of my books, Pittsburgh Characters and Pittsburgh: A Place in Time. After two longish, formal interviews, he gave me a bowl and a serving dish he had made. They are rare pieces from a rare man, and I use them proudly.

Here’s something I’ve never told anyone, not even Bill: every time I’ve interviewed him I’ve never believed him – not entirely. For example, when I visited Bill in his dusty, derelict Buena Vista Street rowhouse, I didn’t believe that he was going to draw inner-city kids and change their lives.

I certainly didn’t believe him when, some years later, I found him in a decrepit Chateau Street warehouse, sitting in an old office chair with the arms torn off, gesturing at a vacant lot next door, saying that there, right there, man, would be a magnificent job training and arts center.

After it was built – miraculously, to my mind -- I didn’t believe Bill when, visiting the breath-taking space, gazing at the museum-quality art hanging on the walls, he told me it would remain unmarred, unmarked, un-metal-detectored. “If you treat people with respect,” he shrugged, “they’ll treat you with respect.”

I didn’t believe it when Bill told me world-class jazz artists would play there – and that people would come to Chateau Street at night to hear them.

Maybe that means I’m a good reporter but a rotten visionary.

Then, of course, there’s Bill’s famous MacArthur “Genius” Grant. I must admit that I never saw Bill as a genius. A pragmatist, sure, but genius, no.

However.

For more than 40 years, everything the man has told me would happen has happened. So maybe he’s a genius after all, a genius at getting things done. At getting people to believe in something, then act on it. At helping thousands upon thousands of people here and at the Bidwells he’s begun San Francisco, Cincinnati, Grand Rapids, and more to come.

Given how much failure there is in the world, I think that makes him a bona fide genius after all.

My favorite Bill moment came some time ago when I was writing an arts piece about him. After molding and firing a pot, his parting words were typically Bill – very simple, yet very profound; they were genius. “When you see life patterns emerging,” he said, “you see that getting through with some dignity and some sanity is a full-time gig.”

His dignity, too, is genius.
Abby Mendelson’s latest book, Ghost Dancer, a collection of short stories, is available at amazon and bn.com.

Captions:

Bill Strickland throws a new pot

At the Frank Ross Legacy Gallery

Strickland molding clay

At the pottery wheel

All photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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