William E. Strickland Jr., Educator and Activist

A life’s recounting in the subject’s own words
Renee Rosensteel Bill Strickland, the pioneer behind the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, stands in the greenhouse at the Drew Mathieson Center for Horticultural and Agricultural Technology. A subsidiary of the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, the center provides horticultural job training supported by hothouse flower sales to local supermarkets and retail florists. The 40,000-sq.-ft. facility is designed to train up to 40 students annually and grow 60,000 orchids per year. Bill Strickland, the pioneer behind the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, stands in the greenhouse at the Drew Mathieson Center for Horticultural and Agricultural Technology. A subsidiary of the Manchester Bidwell Corporation, the center provides horticultural job training supported by hothouse flower sales to local supermarkets and retail florists. The 40,000-sq.-ft. facility is designed to train up to 40 students annually and grow 60,000 orchids per year.
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I’m a North Side kid. I grew up in the Manchester section of Pittsburgh and graduated from Oliver High School, where I was lucky enough to meet a person named Frank Ross, who was my art teacher. In several important ways, Frank turned my life around dramatically.

I was raised in a small row house with my brother by both parents. My mother was determined to give us a chance at a life other than the impoverished one most of my friends were experiencing in our inner-​city neighborhood. She created a home that stressed education and basic decency, and it was my mother’s influence that set up the opportunity for me to get to know Frank Ross. She raised us in a non-​racial environment, so I had no reason to reject Frank simply because he was white.

As a young man, I was anxious to do something with myself other than drift around the ’hood, and Frank Ross was the key. He was my mentor. Frank was a talented ceramicist, but was at least as great a human being as he was an artist. He spent lots of time with me after school, and, with his guidance, I got so caught up in working with clay that, one day when school ended, Frank said, “Why don’t you just come out to my house? I have pottery wheels in my basement. You can make some pots, and meet my wife and kids.”

As a backdrop for our work at the ceramics wheel, Frank would bring jazz albums to school, and I just fell in love with those sounds. From an emotional standpoint, discovering jazz opened up a portal of opportunity for me. It provided me with a new way of looking at the world — in color instead of black-​and-​white — and it enabled me to experience daily life multidimensionally. I could see it with my eyes, hear it with my ears and respond to it with my soul. I used that music as energy to shape a vision of how I wanted to live my life.

To further expand my consciousness, Frank would take me to jazz concerts. I saw John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Ahmad Jamal — all those guys — when I was just 16 years old! But when I saw Billy Taylor, I said to myself, “I’m going to be like him when I grow up.” Billy was articulate and presented himself well. He was totally in command of himself and his music. As a result of those concerts, I decided that, one day, I would build a music hall to preserve and present jazz to the community, and eventually did so under the umbrella of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (MCG). When Herbie Hancock came here for the first time, he asked, “What exactly is this place?” I said, “It is the living embodiment of your music.”

Frank Ross was important to me in terms of ceramic art and clearly was responsible for my love affair with jazz, but he also allowed me to develop intellectually. For example, once he said, “Don’t get hung up on your grade in my class. I’m going to give you an A. Just go out and do something interesting.” So I bought a camera at a pawnshop and, because I was interested in architecture, started taking pictures of buildings, one of which was St. Vincent’s Monastery in Latrobe. The monks’ residence there was designed by a man named Tasso Katselas, who had studied with Frank Lloyd Wright. Now, I had been to Fallingwater to see Mr. Wright’s house, and was blown away by the innovation. Twenty years later, I called Mr. Katselas and said, “You don’t know me, but I want you to design a building for me in my neighborhood.” And he did — the MCG building on Metropolitan Street in Manchester.

Frank Ross never told me specifically what he saw in me when I was a student at Oliver High School, but he believed that I would do well after I graduated. I became a pilot and was flying 727s! There I was, a kid from the inner city who got pretty good at throwing pots, was accepted for admission at the University of Pittsburgh, graduated with honors, and became an airplane pilot. I gave Frank a picture of me in the cockpit of an airliner and he had it framed and hung it in his home. He knew that, because of his mentorship, I had built a pretty successful life. Tragically, he was killed about three years before we built the MCG building, so he never saw the center — but his teacher, a man named Wesley Mills, did.

Wes was a professor at Carnegie Tech and taught Frank Ross ceramics. One day, Wes called me up and said, “Bill, I’ve been hearing about this incredible place you’ve built, and I want to see it before I leave out of here.” So Wes came over to MCG and took the tour. At the end, he sat in our boardroom and started to cry. Before long, he looked up at me and said, “How did you know what Frank and I were trying to do?” “It was as clear as you’re sitting here,” I responded. “I knew what Frank was talking about when it came to the power of art and music to change one’s way of looking at the world. It was obvious to me.” Wes was overwhelmed. I said, “Please accept this lunch we’re having here today as a token of thanks to you.” “Thanks for what?” he asked. “Don’t you remember,” I said, “when I was in high school and, pretending to be a college student, I would sneak into the art studio at Carnegie Tech to work? After a while, Wes, you got hip to things and would leave a wedge of wood in the door so I could get in and out. Thanks for that wedge in the door.” Wes died six months later, but he was aware of how he had helped me, and how much I appreciated it.

I guess I’ve always wanted to make something of myself, and that’s mostly because of my mom. It wasn’t so much what she told me, but what she allowed me to do. Once I got into clay, I took over the basement of our house, turning it into a studio. Then I commandeered the laundry area and fashioned a dark room for my photography. My mom supported everything I did, even when I went to the South on my own to work for civil rights. She let me explore life, saying, “I’m with you, Bill, and I’m proud of you.” When I was invited to The White House for the first time by President George H.W. Bush, I saved the invitation and the menu from the luncheon, brought them home and gave them to my mother. She teared up, saying, “I never thought that one of my children would break bread with the President of the United States.” I told her, “The reason I was able to do that is because of you, and all the time, energy and belief you had in raising me the right way. Thank you, Mom, and I love you.”

Now, my father had lots of troubles. He was raised-​up in the Deep South and was a victim of a lot of racism. But my dad was also a victim of life’s disappointments. He used to drink a lot and gamble, and wasn’t always around. But he had some very good qualities, too. He worked and never abandoned our family. My father was a building tradesman. When I took over the Bidwell Training Center in the early 1970s, I hired him to teach our building trades program, and he did a good job. But when I built MCG, my dad said, “I want to go home.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “I want to go back to the kitchen.” You see, he had been a master sergeant and a cook in the Army. In those days, before President Truman, black folks in the military could do two things: drive trucks or make food. My dad had been a cook on a troop ship going to Europe, and got pretty good at it. He was, as I’ve been told, the first black chef ever hired by the Hilton Hotel chain in Chicago when he got out of the service. So when we built the MCG building and decided we were going to teach culinary arts, I put my dad in the kitchen. He became a pastry chef and was here for 20 years teaching kids to cook. My dad spent the last two decades of his life working at MCG. My mother once told me, “I saw your father get up in the morning, put on a suit and go to an office with his name on the door. He would never tell you this, but you really saved his life.”

I’m a Type-​A personality. I can’t quit while I’m ahead. So today, I have this center and eight others now open across the country. I’ve learned a lot, and we’ve figured out a lot of stuff over here in terms of how to treat people, how to get the best out of kids who have been written off, and how to get people who have given up on life back into it through vocational education, and so on. We’ve figured out a way to create a beautiful environment that provides safety and security, and also fosters innovation. Look at all the great things that are being done at MCG Jazz. That never happens if the music hall doesn’t get built, and the music hall doesn’t get built unless I meet Frank Ross. That’s the way life works: step by step. I know definitively that if you build other versions of what we’ve built here, in other cities and in other parts of the world, you will get innovation every time. We can improve public education for poor kids, white folks, black folks and Hispanics, whatever. We can create a new way of thinking about how to be a human being. That’s what I’m really after.

I’m good with people, and that makes up for a lot of skills and knowledge that I don’t have. The issue is to find out what your strengths are and what you ultimately like and want to do. I like to turn bad things into good things. There’s a certain pleasure that comes out of doing what’s right. The message I want our students to get is: “So you’re black and your mom is a drug addict. That isn’t your whole story. Your story is what you experience when you come here.” And that’s turned out to be correct. Five of our faculty started coming here as kids. They went through our programs, then on to college and are now back teaching at the center that they say saved their lives. I could cite you many living examples of our success. We’ve produced Ph.D.s, surgeons, and so on. This isn’t a theory. This is real. And it’s sustainable.

Yes, in 1996, I received what they call a MacArthur “genius grant,” which is a big deal, I suppose. It’s a nice thing to have on your resume — and it may sometimes get a foundation to say “yes” instead of “no” because they think, “This guy is a MacArthur genius. He must know what he’s doing.” It might give a person a bit of an edge in that regard, but so what? You still have to go to work in the morning. And my wife still says, “Take the garbage out, genius.” But I would have been doing the work anyway. I won the MacArthur because I was doing this. Whether they acknowledged me or not made no material difference to my work.

The vision that I have for this place, like all of life’s experience, has come in steps. It wasn’t a revelation. The first thing I had to do was convince people that I knew what I was doing so they’d give me money to create this building. Then I had to make sure that everything came in on budget so that I could get more money to develop and implement successful programs. People had to have confidence in me. Then I had to build an auditorium that would, in time, become a music hall, and then get lucky enough to meet Marty Ashby, with his love for jazz, his contacts, and his experience in that world. Marty has been running MCG Jazz for the past 27 years and, five Grammy Awards later, here we are. It’s a sequence: B follows A and C follows B. If Frank Ross doesn’t take me on a field trip to Fallingwater, I don’t hire Tasso Katselas, and MCG’s home doesn’t become the magnificent thing that it is. It goes back to that early experience. And you never know exactly how those experiences are going to impact you. But I’ve learned that if you saturate kids with experience, something cool will happen.

In my estimation, fundamentally, most kids are born bright. It’s largely their environment that determines what happens to them. I know this from personal experience, and that’s why I know these centers work. If we can get them open, with the right faculty and the right leadership, they will start to pay dividends. We’ve got eight new centers open right now, and they’re getting the same outcomes as we did in Pittsburgh. My biggest frustration is that we don’t have 200 centers built. If and when we do, we can change the world. So let’s go. We’re wasting time. We’ve got the cure for spiritual cancer. We’ve got it all figured out.

Take a look at the news these days. The planet is melting. People are getting killed. The country is bankrupt. The school systems don’t work. All of this is true. But that has nothing to do with me coming to work tomorrow. When I walk in the door of this place, my job is to keep this thing going and to keep my energy level high and our momentum alive. I hope when they lower me into my grave that I’m writing a proposal for the next center. That’s the deal. My succession plan was to hire somebody to run this local center so that I can focus on building new centers for the rest of my life. I ain’t going no place. I will just change titles.

This place is here because of a lot of people who invested in this space and in me, who stuck their necks out for me when I really needed them. The point of my story is that one person committed to doing the right thing can be enough to change a young person’s life for the better. That’s the philosophy of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. It isn’t a theory. It’s real.

Jeff Sewald

Jeff is an award-​winning independent filmmaker and writer who specializes in defining the cultural significance of American people, places, things and events. Among other projects, he is currently producing a television documentary about the history of jazz in Pittsburgh, and is co-​authoring the memoirs of famed forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht.

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