Worthington artist Reginald Williams was not looking to enshrine his art in the Columbus Museum of Art.

But it might be anyway, thanks to his wife.

Williams, 83, has spent the past two decades painting commissioned portraits. His work is displayed in multiple department buildings at Ohio State University, and he believes he has completed about 100 portraits that are hanging in homes and offices in central Ohio and beyond, he said.

That successful career and a home full of art is all he needed to be content with his accomplishments, he said.

However, his wife, Mary Montgomery, 78, decided earlier this year that he deserves more recognition and started the process of donating some of his work to the museum.

"I said, 'You know, I'm going to make you famous this year,' " Montgomery said. "He just said, 'Well, whatever.' "

"That's why I married this lady," Williams said with a laugh.

Art has been part of Williams' life for a long time.

The first memory he associates with his art was when he drew a detailed Nativity scene on his classroom chalkboard in middle school.

"The next thing I knew, I was going around drawing it on every other classroom's (board)," Williams said.

However, for the next several years, art was pushed to the backburner, he said.

First, sports got in the way.

Williams was a "star" basketball player, according to Montgomery, at Linden-McKinley High School in Columbus, and also played baseball and football.

He said he didn't spend a lot of time working on his art because it didn't fit with the rest of his life.

"In the '50s, if you were a basketball star, you didn't tell anyone you were interested in art," Montgomery said.

Williams then spent four years in the Marines after high school, but when he returned to central Ohio, he decided to cultivate his artistic skills, apprenticing and learning under artist Charles William Duvall, whom he credits with much of his early learning.

Soon he began exhibiting his work at sidewalk shows throughout central Ohio.

Meanwhile, he owned and operated a cleaning business to make ends meet for his family, which included Montgomery and their four children. (The couple now have eight grandchildren.)

For practical reasons, the business often came first. But in any spare moment, Williams always worked on his art.

"He was drawing every day," Montgomery said. "I would find drawings on matchbooks, on scrap paper, on things lying around the house. He drew on everything."

Running a business while working on his art -- and taking care of a growing family -- never bothered Williams, who was born in Zanesville. He said his Appalachian roots gave him a work ethic that never wavered.

"My family came out of the mountains," he said. "They were coal miners and mountain people. So it didn't faze me at all. I enjoy the work."

Into his 50s, Williams' art was his passion but still mostly a hobby. He sold some paintings, but not enough to make a living.

"At the time, if he came home and sold a painting for $200 or $250, it was like, 'Oh, wow,' " Montgomery said.

But in 1987, Williams had a heart attack, which led to radical changes for the family.

Montgomery decided to get her Ph.D. in health science "to stop the people I loved from dying" and changed the family's diet to vegetarian.

When Williams retired from the cleaning company in the 1990s, he said, he was feeling healthier than ever and redoubled his focus on his paintings.

In that same decade, he began receiving commissions for portraits. Company officials, friends and people he had never met were asking for his work, and he credited his retirement for his art career taking off.

"I was always surprised when someone would call," he said.

The painting that stayed with Williams was a portrait of Elijah Pierce, the son of a former slaves from Mississippi who moved to central Ohio and became an award-winning woodcarver. Before Pierce died in 1984, Williams painted his portrait and sketched a drawing of Pierce's wife, Estelle Green.

That painting represents Montgomery's hopes for her husband. She contacted the Columbus Museum of Art about the painting and submitted it as a donation to the museum, along with the Estelle Green sketch and a third portrait.

"I never thought it would be hanging in a museum," Williams said. "I just did it because I wanted to."

Gifts to the museum, 480 E. Broad St., are reviewed by a committee that makes a recommendation to the museum's board of trustees on whether the piece will become part of the permanent collection, according to the museum's spokeswoman, Melissa Ferguson.

She said Williams' works are in that process.

"(The) Columbus Museum of Art is very pleased that Dr. Montgomery thought of our museum when making her gift," Ferguson said in an email.

The outcome of that decision is not likely to affect Williams much. He called the process "interesting" and said he didn't imagine reaching this point.

"I'm pretty laid back," he said.

But for Montgomery, the quest to gain recognition for her husband's work is important.

Williams was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2013. Although he underwent successful surgery and chemotherapy and has his final oncologist appointment next month, the ordeal made Montgomery realize she wanted his art to reach more eyes.

"I thought, 'Wow, he could die,' " she said. "And he would never know and would never see (his work) in a museum."

Montgomery said she is hoping to get Williams' work in every major art museum in Ohio. She then plans to start moving out of state.

She said her ideal scenario would be to have a book of Williams' work so people can see the progression of his work. She said he is "finally doing his own style" later in life.

If she can accomplish that, she said, she finally will feel her husband is getting the respect he has deserved for years.

"In 100 years, I want people to be able to look through the book and see that this is what can happen," she said.

aking@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekAndrew