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2020 Harrison M. Sayre Award Honoree

Catherine Willis

A passionate advocate for enriching lives through education, Catherine Willis’ love for our community radiates through her enduring service to it.

As a Columbus City Schools (CCS) teacher, Mrs. Willis dedicated her career to instilling knowledge and developing students to become lifelong learners. Nearly 50 years ago, she co-founded Friends of Art for Community Enrichment (F.A.C.E.) to introduce children to the art and culture of Africa and African Americans. Among its activities, F.A.C.E. presents local, regional, and national artists’ work, encourages participation in intergenerational art activities, and furthers awareness and understanding of the African American culture through artistic portrayals of community experiences. 

Since 1987, Mrs. Willis has served as part of the Helen Jenkins Davis Scholarship Fund Lunch Bunch, which awards scholarships to Black CCS graduating seniors who demonstrate high scholastic and ethical standards. Mrs. Willis and a colleague developed the fund to recognize Helen Jenkins Davis, who led the desegregation of CCS and committed her professional life as an educator to mentoring and motivating underprivileged and at-risk Black students. Ms. Jenkins Davis was later inducted into the Columbus Hall of Fame. More than three decades after its founding, the group has awarded $120,000+ to more than 130 CCS students.

In her retirement, Mrs. Willis continues to advocate for children through her volunteer work. In 2007, she founded Urban Strings, an organization dedicated to supporting underserved minority youth in playing string instruments. Since its founding, the group has grown from just a few young people to more than 50. In 2019, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra recognized the success of the organization and Mrs. Willis’ role in it by awarding her its Music Educator Award.

Mrs. Willis’ commitment to the young people of our community is further seen through her 30 years of service on the board of the Columbus Youth Foundation (CYF), The Columbus Foundation’s first Supporting Foundation. CYF improves the lives of youth from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods by providing healthy, positive opportunities to learn life lessons through recreation and sports.

In all these ways and more, Mrs. Willis exemplifies the spirit of Harrison M. Sayre, leaving little doubt of her commitment to the betterment of Columbus’ young people and our collective future.

The Columbus Foundation is proud to honor her extraordinary service by presenting her with the 2020 Harrison M. Sayre Award.


Catherine Willis

Award Recipient

Catherine Willis


About the Award

The Harrison M. Sayre Award, given in honor of the Foundation’s founder and 25-year volunteer director, recognizes leadership in philanthropy in central Ohio.