September 24, 2021
Written By: Michelle Pawelski
At 22, Catherine Greseth escaped her abusive husband and fled to Colorado with her two-year old daughter. It was the 1980s and the young mother and recent Black Hills State University graduate knew no one and had no money. What she did have was a desire to start a new life and the determination to make it happen.
With a degree in mass communications, Catherine worked several internships but struggled to find work in her field. She moved back to South Dakota gaining experience at Sturgis radio station KBHB, organizing the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally’s first concert, and becoming the marketing director of a successful Black Hills retail company. After a few years, Catherine returned to Colorado with her now two daughters and added to her already impressive resume. She oversaw the marketing of casinos in Central City and ended up owning a bus tour company – the largest incoming tour company in Denver.
Life seemed to be falling into place for the single mother until the late 1990s when several tragedies, including her mother’s death from a brain tumor and the loss of a friend’s husband during the Columbine school shooting, caused her to sell her tour company and escape to Ruidoso, New Mexico.
“I was in New Mexico on top of a mountain and that is where I met my husband.” Clete and Catherine had met years before when they both were living in Spearfish, however, the two had not spoken since. “The minute we saw each other we just knew,” she said. The two have been married 17 years.
It was only six months into their marriage when Catherine was in the shower one morning and noticed what looked like black snakes floating in each of her eyes. Doctors said both of her retinas had detached, something unusual for someone so young. “I was only 40 and it was totally unusual for something like that to happen, but it was from the injuries I sustained 20 years before. Doctors said it was like a pair of jeans that were worn out.” During that same time, her youngest daughter Mary developed an autoimmune disease that also led to her loss of eyesight.
Catherine’s weakened retinas came from injuries she sustained from her first husband two decades before.
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Catherine’s family moved to eastern South Dakota when she was 17. Coming from the big city of Milwaukee to the tiny farming community of Scotland proved to be a culture shock for Catherine.
“I was lost.” She got married at 18 and moved to Spearfish after her husband got a job with the Homestake Mine. “He ended up being really abusive. He left me for dead in a field, stomped on my head. Somebody found me and took me to Deadwood. When they found out who I was, they called my husband to come pick me up.”
Despite the struggles of dealing with both her and her daughter’s loss of sight, Catherine continued to work entering the medical field. She worked as an area director for Linn Care, United Blood Service and Compassionate Care Hospice. In 2014, she was recruited by an Albuquerque company to oversee business development for a hospice program. She had the job for three months when she woke up one Sunday morning and could not see.
Scar tissue had formed on her eyes from the retinal surgery she had years before. Doctors removed the scar tissue from one eye but was left with limited eyesight. “One eye is like looking through a dirty fish tank and the other eye is very limited. I only have peripheral vision.” Unable to drive, Catherine brought in a doctor’s note stating that her husband would have to drive her to work. When she brought in the note, the company fired her stating that it was due to her eyesight. With an impressive resume, Catherine quickly got another job, however, in the back of her mind she knew someone needed to educate employers.
“I had no idea that people were that oblivious about a disability.” Although she was unsure of how she was going to educate these employers, Catherine knew where she was going to start – back in South Dakota.
After returning to South Dakota, Catherine found her perfect career – a culmination of all her life experiences. In 2014, then Gov. Dennis Daugaard, whose parents were both deaf, formed a task force to look at the problem with employers not hiring people with disabilities. Catherine applied for the executive director position of the Workforce Diversity Network and was hired. “You can see my whole life led up to this calling. I get it from all aspects, from my daughter, my mom, my dad. I never had a fear of people with disabilities. I didn’t realize it existed.”
Catherine’s father, Gayheart, became disabled after a five-story fall and had to change careers when she was 5. Her mother, Jayne, had been one of the first people In Milwaukee to teach children with severe disabilities as they were coming out of institutions in the late 1950s. The family moved to South Dakota, where Gayheart was raised, when Jayne accepted a job helping integrate disabled children into the mainstream classroom.
Catherine now works from home - a peaceful, 1,000-square-foot cabin in Custer she shares with Clete. Her decades of personal and professional struggles along with her accomplishments and sheer determination have culminated in what she says is her “true calling” - helping others to look past disabilities and see the potential of an often-overlooked workforce. In the seven years since the Workforce Diversity Network of the Black Hills formed, Rapid City has been a national leader in employing people with disabilities and providing accommodations and resources to both the employer and employee. “Now a lot of other states are focusing on employing people with disabilities, but we literally led the way,” she said.
The success of the Workforce Diversity Network is due in large part to Catherine and her drive to use every circumstance in life as a motivator to change things for the better. “There is always purpose, and if you look for the purpose even in bad situations, and you can help other people, it is all worth it.” ▤