Cover photo for Katherine A. McWilliams's Obituary
Katherine A. McWilliams Profile Photo

Katherine A. McWilliams

August 18, 1928 — August 14, 2023

Shaker Heights

Katherine A. McWilliams


Katherine Arden Ryan McWilliams was born in Cleveland, Ohio.  She was the second daughter of Norman Ryan (a lawyer) and Mary Hoffman Ryan (a minister).  While her brothers Irving (“Bud”) and John followed their father’s path into the law, and her older sister Francis (“Frannie”) ministered to youth like her mother, Kathie took the best attributes of both parents and set out on her own path.  The result has been a remarkable life grounded in faith ministry with a propensity for bringing people together with the charisma and charm that would be the envy of any trial lawyer.  She was a force for change with an engaging wink and a dimpled smile.  

Kathie Ryan grew up on West 101st street near Madison Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio, where the world came through the open home that her parents created.  She served on the student counsel and graduated from West High School with recognition from the National Honors Society.  She loved to sing and dance as evidenced by her leadership roles in the Choral Club and the Madrigal Singers.  She went on to Otterbein College where she continued to sing and act and lead her peers as the Sibyl Queen.  She received her BA in English with minors in French and Home Economics in 1950, and she came back to Cleveland to start her career as a teacher in the Berea school district.  

One of Kathie’s guiding principles that she shared with all of us was to “keep your options open”.  She followed that principle, when she temporarily left teaching and went to work at the Ohio Bell Telephone Company where she used her power of engaging others to recruit managers out of college for the Employment Office.  She turned some of that charm toward recruiting the heart of one particular manager, Robert (“Mack”) McWilliams, her soulmate.  They were married in 1957 at Heights Christian Church in Shaker Heights.  Their love and dedication to each other was evident through their 53 years of marriage.  A saying hanging in their home beautifully captured their relationship: “Happiness is being married to your best friend.”  Everyone who knew them described their marriage as a model for all of us to follow.  They shared faith, they shared music, and they shared the love that formed the foundation for parenting their three children, Scott, Doug and Ellen,…  and many of their friends.

Kathie and Mack’s three children have been proud to carry on their mother’s legacy of education and justice as they have pursued their passions.  The eldest Scott McWilliams (wife Tess) is a Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Physiology at the University of Rhode Island in Kinston, RI.  Doug McWilliams (wife Jani) is an Environmental Lawyer at Squire Patton Boggs and lives in Shaker Heights, OH.  Ellen McWilliams-Woods (wife Wendy) of Kent, OH is President of Illumine Integrated Solutions through which she continues to serve the 30,000+ students of Akron after her recent retirement as Assistant Superintendent in the Akron Public Schools.  Kathie and Mack were also blessed with 7 grandchildren and their partners:  Arden (Indigo), River (Celina), Canyon (Jess), Ross (Alexa), Cori (Dan), Taylor (John), and Bailey.  They also have six great grandchildren Coen, Townes, Nellie, Upton, Crew, and Briggs who are all beneficiaries of the love that Kathie and Mack invested in this amazing family.  

Kathie may not have invented free-range parenting, but she enthusiastically embraced the notion that children are naturally curious and they learn best when given the space to explore a diverse world without fear of difference.  To that end, she and Mack served as a host family for 16 years with the Cleveland International Program - this involved hosting adults from all over the world  in their Shaker Heights home thereby exposing their children, friends and the neighborhood to people with cultural differences.  During the summers, Kathie and Mack opened their home to children from under-resourced families through the Friendly Town program to the dismay of some of her suburban neighbors so that her own children were given an antidote for the race-baiting of the 1960s.  And, when voluntary busing became a strategy to address segregated elementary schools in Shaker Heights, she was the first to volunteer her children to bus across town to go to school with Black and brown students when others in her neighborhood were white-flighting out of town. She believed that the joy within offers a common ground that transcends race and socio-economic status and she was building a lifetime of experiences across these boundaries to prove this to her children, and anyone else who would care to walk with her. 

She joined with her sister, Frannie Millward, to start Teen Eastern Area Community Helpers (TEACH), which gave teens from diverse backgrounds service opportunities in under-served parts of Cleveland.  Working out of St Philips Church at 30th and Central, they built inter-racial teams to work together to serve those struggling with poverty and systemic injustices.  They would extend this strategy to work camps from Appalachia to California and Jamaica to Wyoming witnessing the power of service to give meaning to the lives of teenagers while breaking through barriers that divide us.  Hundreds of teens benefitted from participating in TEACH and its later iteration TORCH (Teen Out Reach through Christian Help) over the years, none more than her children who were there watching, serving, and learning at her elbow.  

Kathie was dedicated to education. She started teaching adult education in 1972 and then became the Director of the Family Life Adult Education Program within the Cleveland Public Schools until she retired in 1994.  She created centers in each of the public housing projects in Cleveland to bring educational opportunities to the adults she was called to serve.  She spent time in these centers to understand where people were starting and how best to engage them in education as adults.  She found adults that wanted to read to their children, so she offered classes to help adults learn to read through the stories they would share with their children.  She found adults wanting to nurture their children, so she offered parenting and nutrition classes.  She found adults with interest in starting small businesses, so she offered consumer education classes and skill development.  She listened and respected where people were as she developed adult education programming to improve lives and build community.  She would work with her staff to generate ideas for new programming and then she would engage her charm and charisma to secure the funding.  She was creative and dedicated to building a program that served the needs of the residents in the neighborhoods of Cleveland.

Kathie served her Shaker Heights community on the Human Relations Commission, the Community Services Board, the Recreation Board, and on the Shaker Heights School Board for eight years including two years as its President.  She was also the Shaker Heights representative to the East Suburban Council on Open Communities and a founding member of the Shaker Family Center at Sussex.  These were challenging times as neighborhoods were being integrated and neighborhood elementary schools were repurposed with district lines redrawn to improve diverse opportunities in these early school years.  Kathie did the legwork to introduce people at neighborhood gatherings to try and reduce the tension of prejudice and to start the process of building new relationships within these newly defined neighborhoods.  This work was recognized in 1994 when the City of Shaker Heights awarded her the Martin Luther King, Jr Award for Human Relations. 

Kathie was active at Heights Christian Church (HCC) in Shaker Heights where she led efforts to help the Church live up to the legacy of being the suburban church that hosted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak in 1965 when so many others declined.  She was a founding member of the HCC Peace and Justice Committee, which she used as a platform to bring people of different faith traditions together in the common purposes of pursuing peace locally and globally.  She supported her son’s journey on the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament in 1986 and then hosted his band, Collective Vision, in her house while they prepared for the second leg of that March through the USSR to use citizen action to pressure the superpowers to reduce their nuclear weapons arsenals and repurpose those funds for public goods.  Throughout her life, she embraced opportunities to support positive and creative paths toward justice.   

When her husband, Mack, faced Parkinsons she focused her passion and energy on helping him.  They moved into the Greenbriar apartments near their church and began recruiting friends to join them in building a supportive community to assist each other as they aged.  Even during those years, however, she would spend late nights and early mornings writing and networking with her friends and colleagues.  She learned how to use computers to write and communicate with the broader world even as her husband’s world got smaller.  When Mack died in 2011, Kathie opened her most creative chapter.  Music, theater and fine art was always a central part of her life, but she renewed her commitment to these passions.  She fully embraced the title of “artist”.  She started to paint images to pair with her favorite bits of wisdom and she would gift them to family and friends as an annual calendar with monthly reminders of beauty and meditation.  She collaborated with an old friend and composer, Terry Nestor, to write the lyrics for over 100 new songs including a compilation entitled, “Say Yes to Life”, which captured her philosophy that life was to be embraced with unbridled joy and unconditional love.

On the eve of her 90th birthday, a sudden health emergency transformed her from active and independent to physically vulnerable and dependent; something she never could have imagined.  She needed family and family stepped forward just as she did for so many before.  Ellen and her wife Wendy opened their home and moved Kathie into their front room.  Scott and Doug gave regular respites, and provided for the most caring, professional, and loving team of caregivers who quickly and effortlessly became part of the family:  Sylvia Dampier, Jennifer Riley, Angie Brewster, Allene West, Tiffany Millirons, and Von Millender.  The family thanks these dedicated hands and hearts who allowed Kathie to continue to find life’s joy and humor in the midst of her increasing physical challenges.  We also thank the village of wonderful friends and family, including Kathie's "adopted" daughter, Ilona Urban, and Wendy’s sister, Debbie Clifton, who surrounded Kathie with excitement and opportunities to engage in the vital process of sustaining community where she could dispense pearls of wisdom gained from her journey. 

Throughout all of these chapters of her life, Kathie used creativity and charm to witness to the importance of finding and celebrating the inherent goodness in people.  Her passion for peace and justice led her to reach across boundaries that some used to divide people and sow love instead of hate and understanding instead of mistrust.  She leaves a legacy she built with charm, charisma, and kind persuasion imploring us to celebrate our better natures.  She will be missed so much and will live on in those of us who were blessed to have heard her laugh, seen the twinkle in her eyes, and benefited from her wisdom. 


The family prefers that those who wish may make contributions in her name to Heights Christian Church (at Plymouth UCC Church of Shaker), 2860 Coventry Rd, Shaker Hts., OH, where a Memorial Service will be held on Monday, August 21st at 4pm.  


Past Services

Memorial Service

Monday, August 21, 2023

4:00 - 5:00 pm (Eastern time)

Plymouth Church of Shaker Heights

2860 Coventry Rd, Shaker Heights, OH 44120


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