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Top 50 cultural Forces in Pittsburgh with a twist: No. 1 Bill Strickland

Sunday, June 02, 2002

By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer

Sometimes it happens once a week. Sometimes every day. Even a few times a day.

Founder of the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild brings music and hope where they're needed most. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette photos)

That's how often he tells the story -- his story -- as dramatically and earnestly as he might have told it for the first time 38 years ago on the downtrodden streets of Manchester.

Bill Strickland doesn't get sick of telling the story because it explains why he created Manchester Craftsmen's Guild -- an innovative institution in the Manchester neighborhood of Pittsburgh that uses the arts to inspire inner-city kids and that serves as a center of jazz performance and recording.

The story is also the only one he needs to convince people that creativity can keep people alive -- sometimes literally.

"I've learned, just tell 'em the story," Strickland says thoughtfully as he peers out the window of MCG's board room. You can sense he's about to tell his story again.

That he was a lost and frustrated 16-year-old living in Manchester in 1963.

That one day he wandered into the ceramics classroom of Frank Ross, a teacher at Oliver High School.

That he was captivated not only by the feel of the clay in his hands but also by the jazz music playing in Mr. Ross' classroom.

That he felt better hanging out with the classy Mr. Ross than being on the streets.

"I didn't think of being an artist," Strickland says now. "I just wanted to be a cool guy who dressed nice, had a good-looking wife and a great house -- I wanted to be him."

So after enrolling at the University of Pittsburgh, Strickland began giving pottery classes to kids in an abandoned Manchester row house. Now Manchester Craftsmen's Guild boasts a $5.1 million budget, and Strickland, 54, is Mr. Ross.

He helps struggling kids transform their troubled lives through the arts. He's got the house and the wife and the clothes but also impressive contacts in the corporate world and a handful of prominent Washington appointments.

No. 1 in years past

dot.gif2001 -- Fred Rogers, children's entertainer and advocate

dot.gif2000 -- Carol Brown, former head of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust

dot.gif1999 -- August Wilson, playwright

dot.gif1998 -- Martin McGuinn, Mellon Bank chairman

dot.gif1997 -- Teresa Heinz, philanthropist


And though he no longer has time to sit at his potter's wheel, he still shapes things the way the late Mr. Ross did -- except that he shapes minds instead of bowls, futures instead of vases.

"He may be corporate and wear Brooks Brothers suits, but he's still an artist," says Marty Ashby, executive producer of the MCG jazz program.

William E. Strickland Jr. is the Post-Gazette's No. 1 cultural force this year because his not-for-profit model for arts education works. Roughly 450 teen-agers from the Pittsburgh Public Schools annually sign up or are recruited for after-school classes in ceramics, photography, drawing and design at MCG. Last year, 86 percent of the participating seniors went on to college.

MCG's headquarters -- in a spacious, sunny building at 1815 Metropolitan St. -- hasn't been hit by graffiti since it was built in 1987. Nor have there been any incidents of violence at MCG, which does not have metal detectors.

The teachers (called "mentors") trust the students, and the students, in turn, feel appreciated. They work in a spirited, supportive environment where they can see their artwork in the same galleries where works by national artists are displayed in periodic exhibitions.

"The kids respect the fact that the people there are trying to do something for them, so they protect the place," says Toby Biddle, a retired broker and longtime supporter of MCG.

Strickland sometimes walks the hallways of his building, taking time to talk with staff and students despite his packed schedule. Tall and stocky, he towers over most and always speaks calmly and deliberately. He rarely appears harried.

"He watches a lot -- he's an observer," says Joanna Papada, MCG's vice president of operations. "He's also intuitive, but that's the artist in him. It's the part of him that knows what's right and what makes sense."

In addition to the after-school programs, MCG-sponsored artists make numerous visits to the public schools, reaching about 1,000 students a year. And about 20 students annually undergo leadership training at MCG that shows them how art is similar to entrepreneurship. (Artists, Strickland has said, are true entrepreneurs because they always start with a blank canvas.)

But why use creative activity as a tool for self-transformation? Strickland is convinced -- in part from his own experience, in part from the transformations he's seen in MCG students -- that kids who are creative with their hands can think creatively about their futures.

And with so many kids not believing they even have a future after high school, Strickland says the arts have to take center stage in schools.

"You can't teach them algebra if they don't want to live," he says.

Although the youth programs are at the core of MCG, the organization doubles as a center for the preservation of jazz in America. MCG offers an annual concert series of jazz luminaries who perform in MCG's 350-seat hall. Headliners have included Joe Williams, Herbie Hancock and Nancy Wilson.

In 1996, the MCG Jazz recording label was created, and just a year later, the label's second disc, a live recording at MCG of the Count Basie Orchestra, won a Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble. Ashby, a jazz guitarist who helped create a state-of-the-art recording studio at MCG, produced the record.

"MCG is the perfect place to play for a jazz musician," says saxophonist Bob Mintzer. "All the details are very well handled, it's a beautiful hall, and the audience -- because they really want to be there -- is highly attentive."

As if the jazz and arts programs weren't enough, in 1972 Strickland took over Bidwell Training Center, a failing Manchester vocational school. Strickland turned it into a successful enterprise, housed in MCG headquarters, that prepares laid-off workers and at-risk youths for careers in the culinary arts, computer sciences and other areas.

The fusion of the arts programs, the vocational training and the jazz music under one roof -- collectively called the Manchester Bidwell Corp., of which Strickland is president and CEO -- is what makes the enterprise more than just an after-school program, a vocational school or a music organization.

Instead, art students can rub elbows with adults who are working to improve their lives. The adults can hear jazz music in the hallways. And jazz lovers who attend concerts can catch glimpses of the artwork. Ashby compares the organization to a jazz ensemble, which has many parts, none of which dominate.

"The spirit of improvised music reflects the spirit of this place," Ashby says. "Bill is the orchestra leader, and he allows his orchestra -- all of us -- to swing."

Strickland, ever eager to transform his personal experiences into programs, last fall broke ground on a $4 million greenhouse near MCG in which young people will grow orchids and hydroponic tomatoes as a way to train for careers in horticulture. The idea sprouted from his longtime interest in gardening.

MCG also manages the Denali Initiative, a program in which leaders of not-for-profit organizations develop their entrepreneurial skills with the intent of improving society.

Because of all these undertakings, Strickland, who is a Republican, has a formidable national reputation. In the 1990s, he served on the National Council on the Arts, which approves grants for the National Endowment for the Arts. Elsie Hillman, a Pittsburgh philanthropist and then-Republican national committeewoman, was responsible for his nomination.

"I felt he had something to bring to the table, and I wanted to see if they'd recognize the talent he had," Hillman says. "I think he came away from that experience with many friends and admirers. It expanded his scope tremendously."

Last July, he was briefly under consideration by the White House for the chairmanship of the NEA. Then, in April, he was appointed to the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, which helps identify and develop initiatives in the arts.

Former President George H.W. Bush visited MCG when he was a presidential candidate in 1988. Former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton visited in 1996. And, Strickland says, he's going to get President George W. Bush here before long.

Friends and colleagues say it's not just the success of his programs that gets him noticed, but his persistence, hope and ability to build friendships with -- and inspire -- people of all races and classes.

"There have been times when I've needed a boost and been completely energized by a six-minute conversation with him," says Philip B. Parr, chief of staff for the Pittsburgh Public Schools. Parr, who worked with Strickland to establish a special MCG arts program at Oliver High School, says the organization operates from "a profound belief that all students can learn to high standards and will do that if respected and challenged and given the right environment."

But life hasn't always fallen easily into place for Strickland. Before he launched the capital campaign that raised money for his new building, he had $112 in the bank, he says. And despite all the recognition, MCG doesn't have a significant endowment that would lessen the pressure of having to raise funds.

Bill Strickland believes in the inspiring nature of the arts as a fundamental part of education: "You can't teach them algebra if they don't want to live," he says.

The Navy still has not given up the land it promised four years ago to a coalition of MCG admirers in San Francisco who are close to building a center similar to MCG. There is also discussion in Los Angeles; Richmond, Va.; Cincinnati; and other cities about creating MCG-inspired centers -- something Strickland is committed to helping bring about, possibly by obtaining ongoing federal funding.

People say setbacks and challenges never seem to get Strickland down, in part because he has so many people on his side: in corporate America (he's on the board of Mellon Bank); in education (he's on the board of Pitt); in government (he was seated next to first lady Laura Bush at a recent White House dinner); and among his own staff (which he refrains from micromanaging).

"He's a realist," Papada says. "In the midst of all the planning and vision, he knows what's real. That's the urban kid in him."

That urban kid, at 16 years old, could never have expected that in 1996 he'd win a $295,000, no-strings-attached "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Strickland used part of the grant to establish a college fund for his daughter Julie, 18, whom he had with his second wife. (His other daughter, Olivia, is 1, and her mother is Strickland's third and present wife, Rose.)

Over the years, Strickland also has enjoyed a variety of unique experiences. He's made pottery on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and been interviewed by Dan Rather. He spoke at the funeral of legendary jazz saxophonist Stanley Turrentine and, in April, gave the commencement speech at Pitt.

Hollywood producers and actors have approached him about making a film about his life. And he spoke at the Harvard Business School four years ago about the importance of using entrepreneurial business practices in nonprofit organizations.

"Certainly he could leave Pittsburgh," Parr says. "This isn't the easiest town to move visionary ideas in."

But Strickland, who lives only a few blocks from the Manchester homes in which he grew up, shakes his head when the question of leaving is put to him.

"I'm not leaving this place -- ever," he says. "I'm not using it as a way to get somewhere else. This is somewhere else."

Caroline Abels can be reached at cabels@post-gazette.com.

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