When honoree Isaiah Cresent Bey, founder of the Engineering Impact Initiative, walked into the Fairmont Hotel, Downtown, for the New Pittsburgh Courier’s Men of Excellence Class of 2019 Awards Reception, he couldn’t keep the smile from his face.
“I’m just so excited, happy and appreciative about being nominated,” he said. “But what’s really wild is being here when Bill Strickland is being honored—because I went to Bidwell (Training Center) for horticulture, and I’m using that today in my work with kids and urban gardening. So yeah, I’m totally blown away.”
Bey wasn’t alone. Honoree Jerome Taylor, PhD, founder and director of the Center for Family Excellence, was almost entirely at a loss for words.
“I still can’t believe it,” he said at the Feb. 22 event. “This is incredible.”
Incredible was also how filmmaker Emmai Alaquiva described it as he watched nearly 500 friends, supporters and family members of Bey, Taylor, and the other 48 awardees stream into the hotel’s ballroom.
“The Courier deserves major credit for this. I mean, selling the event out weeks in advance. That’s huge,” Alaquiva said. “It says a lot about the nominees, their accomplishments and the community—but it says a lot about the Courier, too.”
It also said a lot about the staff at the Fairmont, who added three tables at the last minute to accommodate the overflow crowd for the event. Courier Editor and Publisher Rod Doss thanked them, the event sponsors, the honorees and the Courier readers who nominated them—and giving a shout out to 80-year-old civil rights veteran Johnnie Miott, who had family from several states away that came in to surprise him at the dinner.
He also acknowledged the evening’s Legacy Award winner, Bill Strickland.
“In 1968, at the height of the riots following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, a young Bill Strickland put out the word that the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild and Bidwell Training Center should not be touched—and they weren’t,” Doss said. “Such was the respect for this man and what he was trying to accomplish.”
Doss then introduced celebrity host Chris Moore, who in turn, welcomed all the honorees to the stage to receive their awards.
“This is why I urge you to read the Courier,” he told the audience. “Because while it takes us to task, and rightly so, for the things we are not doing, it also celebrates these Men of Excellence for what they are doing. These men are rightly lauded as the leaders and role models of the next generation.”
Moore then introduced a short film by Brian Cook on Strickland being the force behind 50 years of free art and career training in Pittsburgh at Manchester Bidwell Corp. One segment included MCG Jazz Director Marty Ashby remembering a visit from Dizzy Gillespie.
“I was sitting here when Diz stood in the middle of this stage and said to Bill, ‘You’re the greatest jazz player I know,’’’ Ashby recalled. “And Bill said, ‘What do you mean? I don’t even play a musical instrument.’ And Dizzy said, ‘This—this auditorium—is your instrument.’”
Strickland then took the stage to a standing ovation.
“Thank you for standing up and letting me know that the way I’ve elected to spend my life has been helpful,” he said.
Strickland spoke of how he was rescued by Oliver High School ceramics teacher Frank Ross, who not only saved him from flunking out, but hounded him into going to Pitt because he said Strickland was “too smart to die—and I don’t want it on my conscience.”
“So my first term (at Pitt), I almost flunked out; the second term, I was on the Dean’s List. I graduated with honors and I just left a board meeting this morning because now I’m one of the trustees,” he said. “And I stood up in front of 13,000 kids and told them don’t give up on poor kids—they might just end up being the commencement speaker. Don’t judge the book by its cover. I had someone sit down and count all the honorary PhDs I’ve received—it’s 24.”
That is the key, he said, to how he’s created such a successful model for a school of art and career training for poor children and adults, who many times are written off.
“There is nothing wrong with these children that affection and world-class food and a belief system that cures spiritual cancer…You have to understand that these children are assets in disguise,” he said. “People are a product of environment. You build beautiful environments, you get beautiful kids. You build prisons—you get prisoners. So, our next move, by the way, is working with the Department of Corrections, we are going to take people who are incarcerated and we’re going to train them to have lives of dignity.”
Strickland’s center—actually, his 12 centers—are doing very well, including the one in Israel that has Arabs and Jews going to school together in harmony. By March 8, Strickland will be in India, meeting with the Dalai Lama about building a center there.
“What I’m telling you is that common sense, decency and affection cures the cancer of the human spirit,” he said. “When I was in recovery from my double-lung transplant a few years back, I prayed that if I were spared, I would continue to build centers for as many years as I had left. Apparently, my offer was accepted.”
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