On the day 20-year-old ceramic artist Bill Strickland began the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in 1968, he had an artist’s vision of creating a communal setting for all kinds of artisans.
Four years later, in 1972, Strickland took over the Bidwell Training Center from Rev. Jimmy Joe Robinson, after Rev. Robinson asked Strickland to lead the organization.
On Strickland’s second day as head of the Bidwell Training Center, he got his first visitor, who asked if he was in charge, then handed him an envelope and wished him a nice day. Inside the envelope was an overdue tax bill—“I’ll never forget that—my second day,” he said. “But I had made this model of what I wanted the center to be, and I started carrying it around town, to banks, anybody I thought might help. So, I eventually get to Sen. John Heinz’s office and he sees me and says, ‘I think your center needs a culinary program.’ I told him I didn’t know. He said, ‘I’ll give you $1 million if you have a culinary program.’ To which I said, what color tablecloths do you want?”
From there he met former Gov. Dick Thornburg and philanthropist Elsie Hillman, and corporate leaders at firms like Calgon and Bayer, and developed a model of career development tailored to the needs of employers in multiple sectors of the economy. Strickland’s model has been successfully replicated in a dozen centers across the country. Now 50 years later, he doesn’t have to call people like Paul Allen and Bill Gates—they call him.
And though he is stepping away from the top spot, he isn’t stepping far—because Manchester Bidwell is embarking on $50 million capital campaign with the goal of opening even more centers. And Strickland will be leading that campaign.
“Yeah, they’re kicking me upstairs, my new title is founder and executive chair,” he said.
“We’ve been thinking about it for a few years, which is why we hired Kevin (Jenkins), thinking he could take over some day. Well, that day is today. He’s a good man. He speaks corporate, and he speaks street—so, he’s bi-lingual.”
When I look back…to do this kind of thing, you have to have friends, and you have to live your life the right way. It’s about getting outcomes for the kids, the students, and the adults—and never giving up. It’s not magic. It’s hard work.”Strickland said the synchronicity of the $50 million campaign, the center’s 50th anniversary, and his stepping down is nice, but it wasn’t planned. What is planned, though, is an anniversary celebration for November, but Strickland said he doesn’t know what it will include yet.
“When I look back…to do this kind of thing, you have to have friends, and you have to live your life the right way,” he said. “It’s about getting outcomes for the kids, the students, and the adults—and never giving up. It’s not magic. It’s hard work.”
Among the cities now operating satellite centers are San Francisco, Calif., Boston, Mass., and New Haven, Connecticut. Strickland said possible sites for new centers funded through the capital campaign include Vancouver, British Columbia, Shreveport, La., and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“That’s what I’ll be doing, focusing in on the new centers,” he said. “The campaign might go quickly, depending on who responds. Yeah, it’s kind of like coming full circle to what I was doing 50 years ago—this is just much bigger.”
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