North Side training center exec worked to help disadvantaged
Jesse Fife Jr. grew up in a large North Side family that was big on love but short on money.
But Mr. Fife's meager beginnings didn't stop him from attending the University of Pittsburgh and helping build one of the most influential craftsmen's guild and training centers in the country. He never stopped trying to help the disadvantaged, though usually from behind the scenes, where he was known as the quiet man with the contagious laugh.
Mr. Fife, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Manchester Bidwell Corp. on the North Side, died Monday, Dec. 6, 2010, after a long battle with cancer. He was 60.
"We were friends for 42 years. We built this place together," said Bill Strickland, CEO of Manchester Bidwell and its subsidiaries, Bidwell Training Center and Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. "The perfect image I have of Jesse is, I go see him in the hospice and with the last breaths he's taking, he asks me, 'How's Bidwell doing?' and 'How are you?' The man is dying, and he's asking about me. That was Jesse."
Mr. Fife grew up in the Perry South neighborhood, one of seven children of the late Jesse W. Fife Sr. and Essie Mae Fife. He was the stepson of the late Hazel Fife. He was one of 50 students admitted into Project A -- an effort to increase minority enrollment at the University of Pittsburgh -- and went on to earn a degree in history and political science in 1972.
After working briefly for Procter & Gamble, he joined with his friend Strickland to begin what would become a lifelong mission of improving the livelihood, skills and overall living conditions of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised in Pittsburgh.
Over the years, Mr. Fife helped Strickland transform the Bidwell Training Center from a civil rights-era social services organization to the nationally accredited, state-licensed career training institution it is today.
The Manchester Craftsmen's Guild teaches ceramics, photography and visual arts to more than 400 students a year. Throughout the year, thousands of people come to the guild to enjoy jazz performances that in the past have included renowned artists such as Nancy Wilson.
At the training center, about 200 students a year are exposed to disciplines including culinary arts, chemistry, horticulture and medical and office careers. Strickland and Mr. Fife built a world-class greenhouse, where students grow orchids and tomatoes.
At Manchester Bidwell, Fife was in the midst of an effort to replicate the core programming of youth arts education and adult career training in other cities, including San Francisco, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Grand Rapids, Mich.
"Even when he was sick, he was still working," Strickland said. "He never wasted a second of the time God gave him."
Most around the training center described Strickland as the visionary dreamer and Fife as his right-hand man who made it happen.
"He was an amazing, extraordinary man on so many levels, and his death is really hitting us hard around here," said Erik Rueter, marketing and communications manager for Manchester Bidwell.
Fife served as a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Efficiency and Effectiveness of City-County Government and was a former member of the board of the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation and the City of Pittsburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment. He was a member of the Iota Phi Chapter of Omega Psi Phi fraternity and recently was selected as a University of Pittsburgh Distinguished Alumnus.
He learned of the honor before he died, said Pitt spokesman John Fedele. The university plans to honor him at a February awards ceremony.
He served as a board member at the Community College of Allegheny County and as chair of the Workforce Development Committee there.
"I consider it an honor to have worked with a man as committed to the success of our students and our region as Mr. Fife. He will be greatly missed," said CCAC President Alex Johnson.
Mr. Fife is survived by his wife, Valerie Johnson Fife; children, Meloney L. Fife and Jesse W. Fife III; and a grandchild, Taylor R. Fife.
Visitation is 2 to 8 p.m. today in the John A. Freyvogel Funeral Home, 4900 Centre Ave., Shadyside. A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Thursday at the Manchester Bidwell Corp., 1815 Metropolitan St.