Katherine B. Williams, Patron and Cultural Leader, 19041994


Known as Cleveland’s “Angel of the Arts,” Katherine B. Williams was a friend to arts and arts organizations throughout northeast Ohio. 

“Kay’s great gift to Cleveland was her knack for recognizing talent,” recalls her former neighbor and close friend, Mary Louise Hahn. “Once she perceived that a person had talent, she would move heaven and earth to persuade others to support and nurture that talent. Consequently, there are lots of people who were given their first leg up by Kay.”

Hahn, who served as chairperson of the Cleveland Arts Prize Committee from 19902000, fondly remembers delicious dinners and stimulating conversations around Williams’s table, a venue that Kay skillfully used to connect artists with arts patrons. Hahn also remembers attending ballets or plays with the group of 30 or 40 people for whom Williams had purchased tickets, and then returning to her home for lively discussions that lasted until 2 or 3 a.m.

“Over the course of 60 years, Kay was the most extraordinary patron,” she adds. “Her guests filled entire rows and rooms at literally hundreds of performances of orchestral music, dance, theater, opera and film.”

Guests at her salons in her home in Cleveland's Belgian Village townhouse complex on Fairhill Boulevard often included high-profile artists and celebrities ranging from Agnes DeMille, Sir Neville Mariner and Rudolph Nureyev to Lee Iaccoca and Dr. Benjamin Spock.

“People just wanted to be with her, because she was so rich a mosaic of a person,” said her friend, Elaine G. Hadden. “Networking artists and the movers and shakers of the town was her great love. So, after a performance, people just naturally adjourned to her house and talked and chatted comfortably until the wee, small hours.”

Williams’ passion for the arts led her to take on roles as a founding board member and trustee of Cleveland Ballet, in which capacities she helped to found the Cleveland Ballet’s dance school in 1972. In 1988, Williams funded a permanent endowment that provided an annual scholarship in her name at the school. She had never missed opening night of the ballet until shortly before her death at age 89. “Part of the soul of the Cleveland Ballet was Kay Williams,” said David Oakland, its general manager. “She never ordered less than 40 tickets for the opening night of the ballet. There isn’t anyone in the organization that wasn’t touched.”

When Kay died in 1994, more than 800 friends, relatives and arts patrons gathered at the State Theatre in Cleveland’s historic Playhouse Square to celebrate her life. The location was fitting, as nearly 25 years earlier, she had taken under her wing Ray Shepardson, the man credited with saving the 1920s complex from the wrecking ball. Kay had introduced Shepardson to the people he needed to raise the funds and move the restoration project from a dream to a reality.

“I called and asked how much it would cost to rent one of the theaters for her memorial, and they put me on hold for a minute,” recalls Clurie Bennis, Williams’s daughter. “Then they told me there wouldn’t be any cost, because there wouldn’t be a Playhouse Square if it weren’t for my mom.”

Celebrated Cleveland director Joseph J. Garry Jr., a close friend, produced the artistic tribute, which featured music conducted by Matthis Dulak, assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, a performance by the students of the School of Cleveland Ballet, songs by Sandro Bonaiuto and Lissy Gulick and a poetic remembrance by actor David O. Frazier. Joe Garry had Kay's dining room table and chairs moved from Belgian Village to the State stage as seating for her closest friends. Civic leaders Lainie Hadden and Sam Miller, then chairman of Forest City Enterprises, Inc., eulogized Williams. “Our Kay saw fit to it that we would be provided,” Miller said, “every one of us in this audience, with the beautiful things of life, as beautiful as her soul: the ballet, the orchestra, the opera, the art museum.” Thomas Ball and Bryan Neff, principals of Telos Video, showed a 13-minute documentary about Williams’s life that featured a poem by Cleveland's Helda Sandburg and performances by Leigh Ann Hudacek, Karen Gabay and Raymond Rodriguez, longtime Cleveland Ballet dancers. After the memorial, audience members gathered on the stage for refreshments and to share their favorite stories about Williams.

Kay Williams was born to Tully and Lalla Reynolds Biays in Shepardstown, West Virginia. She married an Englishman, Alfred L. Williams (Wiggs), in 1926, and the couple moved to Cleveland in 1928. They had two children, Clurie and Leslie Williams Mills, and five grandchildren. Alfred, who had helped found the Brush Development Corporation, died in 1976.

Williams wrote three published plays: The Tinder Box, Dick Whittington and The Traveling Companion.

She also served as a trustee of the American Museum in Britain, the Cleveland Music School Settlement, the Cleveland Institute of Music, DanceCleveland and the Fairhill Institute for the Elderly. Williams was a life member of the Cleveland Museum of Art Womens Council, an honorary member of the Playhouse Square Association, a member of the Intown Club, the Twentieth Century Club, the Junior League, and the advisory board of the Cleveland Opera.

Her Cleveland Arts Prize Special Citation stated: “Your eye for artistic talent is remarkable. So also is your unique ability to persuade others to join you in supporting and nurturing talent.” As Barbara Robinson, civic leader and arts patron who was a close friend, once said: “Kay remains, and will always be, one of the treasured patrons of the arts for the city of Cleveland.”

—Christopher Johnston


Cleveland Arts Prize
P.O. Box 21126 • Cleveland, OH 44121 • 440-523-9889 • info@clevelandartsprize.org