An angel among us

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John O'Connor, editorial director, McKnight's Long-Term Care News
John O'Connor, editorial director, McKnight's Long-Term Care News
To suddenly realize you are in the presence of greatness is a rare and heady experience. About a thousand of us shared that feeling Wednesday at the Assisted Living Federation of America conference, when Bill Strickland took the stage.

Strickland was raised in a hardscrabble Pittsburgh neighborhood. Like so many other poor, black young men growing up in the 60s, he seemed likely to inherit an adult life full of challenge, misery and pain.

What saved him? An art teacher at his high school named Frank Ross. Ross explained to Strickland what a pottery wheel was, and how it could be used. Ross also demanded that Strickland apply to college, which the young pupil reluctantly did - with a pencil. He was conditionally admitted to the University of Pittsburgh. He would later graduate with honors. Who knew then that he would win a MacArthur "Genius" Award for his work with the disadvantaged, while also piling up more than a dozen honorary degrees?*

Perhaps Strickland's real genius is an unwillingness to discount the value of people, regardless of how bleak their circumstances might appear to be. Any senior living professional who can't see the value of that viewpoint is
probably in the wrong line of work.

"People are born into this world as assets, not liabilities," he reminded us.

To help his students realize their worthiness, he makes sure they receive gourmet-quality lunches at the school he runs. He also makes sure fresh cut flowers (from the school's greenhouse) are placed in the school each day.
A small gesture, perhaps. But an important one. 

"Dignity is essential to education," he added, along with "welfare is a state of mind." In Strickland's world, there's plenty of creativity, responsibility and hope for anyone willing to embrace them.

It has been said that talent does what it can, while genius does what it must. Strickland said he hopes to work with senior living operators. You would be hard pressed to find better news from this year's conference.

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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.