Williams, Catherine Gayle, 1914-
- Existence: 1914-
Catherine Gayle Williams was born on November 21, 1914 in Des Moines, Iowa, the fourth of Godfrey and Ethel Wells Williams's seven children. Although she graduated as valedictorian of her class from North High School in 1932, she could not afford to go to college. She pursued, instead, the first of her two careers, tap dancing. Williams began dancing in Chicago, toured in a number of large eastern cities, lived in California for four years, where she appeared in several movies, and in 1940 toured with the Hot Mikado in which Bill "Bojangles" Robinson starred. During this time she married Charles Atkinson, a dancer. They were divorced in 1944. Williams meanwhile attended the Cortez Peters Business College in Chicago (1942-1943). For a brief time she worked in an office and, with a friend, started a short-lived dress shop. When her parents became ill, she returned to Des Moines in 1947.
Williams took a job as a secretary with the Polk County Welfare Department and advanced to Public Assistance Worker II by 1955. She thus began her second career, in the field of social work. After thirteen years of part-time study at Drake University, she graduated in 1961 with a degree in psychology and sociology. In 1962 she was appointed to the position of Public Welfare Supervisor. The following year she took a two-year "educational leave" to attend the School of Social Work at the State University of Iowa (now the University of Iowa). She and Richard Williams were married in 1963. He died in 1995. In 1965 at the age of fifty-one, she graduated and returned to the Polk County Welfare Department, soon rising to the position of Social Work Supervisor IV. From 1975 to 1981 Williams was the Deputy Commissioner of the Iowa Department of Social Services, and for a six-month period in 1979 served as the acting Commissioner. At the time she retired in 1981, after thirty-two years of service, she was the highest-ranking black official in the state government. Throughout her career she focused her concerns on the family and family relationships, initiating a number of innovative programs in the Department of Social Services. After her retirement she became a consultant in social and management systems for Johnson and Williams Associates.
Williams has served on numerous boards and committees and has been honored extensively for her contributions to the field of social work. In 1980 she was named to the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame and cited as Iowa's Social Worker of the Year. The following year she received an Alumni Distinguished Service Award from Drake University and an honorary degree from Simpson College. In 1990 she was awarded the YWCA/Mary Louise Smith Racial Justice Award and the University of Iowa School of Social Work Distinguished Alumnae Award.