“My first reaction to receiving the Cardinal’s Award? Oh my goodness, I must be old!” laughed Gretchen Willison as she described her surprise on being a recipient. “Honestly, I am honored to have been considered and only wish if it had been possible, that the award was given to my husband Bruce and me.” And that is what drives Gretchen—family first.
A mother of six and grandmother to nine, Gretchen comes from a family of builders–Illig Construction and Architectural Woodworking founded by her ancestors decades ago. Newcomers from Alsace-Lorraine, they gave back to their community as they prospered in Los Angeles. “I credit my family and upbringing for my involvement in philanthropy. I’ve come to realize that it’s part of my DNA—I can’t imagine not doing it. My husband and I find it a core value in our lives. You really do get back so much more than you give.”
Gretchen has a reputation for having a hard time saying no when asked to do good works and likewise, people have a hard time telling her no when she asks them to support her projects. With her characteristic honesty and wry sense of humor, Gretchen explains that, “People can tell me no with no problem. I just find enough people to tell me yes. When you ask, you can’t be afraid to beg a little.”
But back to building and buildings and how they matter. Gretchen explains that “Place matters to me. Building projects matter. Brick and mortar is important. Students’ GPAs go up when a new school building is completed, doctors flock to new well-equipped hospitals. I am proud to work for non-profit organizations that enrich the fabric of Los Angeles.”
Gretchen is known and well respected as a first-class fundraiser that organizations across the board seek out for her counsel and expertise. How is she so incredibly successful in her work? Gretchen explains that she pays close attention to friends of an organization and how these possible donors envision philanthropy, not just if they can write a check. She connects like- minded people to the organization with which she is working and enables them to make a difference together. Gretchen looks for the right people to advance a non-profit’s mission and vision for the future. She believes in whom she works with, what they do and understands how she can help both meet their mutual goals.
That’s why Gretchen was drawn to projects such as the Carmelite Sisters’ Duarte Treatment Facility for the Aging, Santa Teresita. There was no way she could say no to them. “I didn’t mean to get involved but their devotion to life, especially to older people juxtaposed to what’s happening in popular culture truly inspired me. Their charism to love and honor the elderly is simply awe-inspiring.”
Working with St. Genevieve’s Pre-K – 12th grade parochial school in Panorama City drew Gretchen in for similar reasons. “Their leadership is so exceptional—smart, with a vision for these wonderful kids. I wanted to help.”
One of St. Monica’s over 7,000 registered parishioners, Gretchen was inspired by Msgr. Lloyd Torgerson to lead a $33 million campaign. Six years later, St. Monica now has an underground parking garage to meet parishioners’ needs, the Caruso Community Center, the Simon Student Center and a renovated schoolyard as well as a reception pavilion.
Gretchen’s mission in helping others comes down to this, “We are called to share the two commandments that Jesus gave us: Love God with your whole mind and heart and love your neighbor as your self.”
The Catholic faith defines Gretchen’s philanthropy. This is one of the reasons she is a part of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Development steering committee, concentrating on the Juan Diego House for Priestly Vocations where young men are discerning whether to take vows. “We need more priests. Church leadership is key here and it’s important to work with them in supporting vocations. Los Angeles’ discerning seminarians currently live in six different houses. Given the gift of increased vocations in our city, we are concentrating our fundraising efforts on one house for formation where seminarians can live as community.” The new building will be called Queen of the Angels Center for Priestly Formation.
In addition to her work in Los Angeles at St. John’s Health Center and the United Way, Gretchen also made a difference in Oregon where they lived for five years. There, she immersed herself raising the profile of the Portland Opera and Central Catholic High School, ultimately receiving the Governor’s Volunteerism Award and the Portland State University Presidential Citation for her leadership as President of the Portland State University Foundation.
The question is how was she able to raise six children and carve out such a rewarding career. The answer, Gretchen explains, is simple: “My husband has been so good to our family. That gave and continues to give me the ability to have the time and energy to help the causes and organizations in which we believe.” And then, Gretchen returns to that all-important part of her life, family. “Nothing is more important than our six children, our in-law children and our grandchildren. They’re everything.”