It was two years ago when Sen. Cathy Giessel was stretching her legs in a hotel lobby during a break at an Arctic conference in downtown Anchorage.
She was approached by a nice-looking young man wearing a suit and tie. His hair was trim and he looked like an up-and-coming professional. He was interested in the conference, it was obvious, but he looked her straight in the eyes and spoke:
“You’re Cathy Giessel, aren’t you?” he started. “You saved my life.”
She was taken aback.
The man looked nothing like she remembered him from 18 months earlier, when he had arrived at a homeless shelter and described his symptoms to a social worker, who said, “There’s a nurse in the clinic. You need to see her.”
If she had not seen him that night, he would surely have died. But she won’t divulge more, because as a consummate professional, she is protective of his privacy.
Cathy spends every Monday at this same homeless shelter, where she nurses the sick, the hopeless, the drug-addicted, and the down-and-out.
Often, she finds it emotionally hard to pull into the parking lot, knowing how much tragedy awaits and wondering if she can make a difference in just one broken life. But that night she did, and it sticks in her mind as a credo: “Never get discouraged. Never give up.”
Stories of people who have turned their lives around abound in Cathy’s life, as she has volunteered at pregnancy crisis centers and provided life-giving health care to children in rural Alaska. She was also a critical care nurse for many years in Anchorage.
Born in Fairbanks to a Wien Air pilot and stay-home mom, Cathy grew up tagging along behind her dad as he went to “the office,” which means he was flying people and freight between rural villages and Fairbanks.
Her love for the people in rural Alaska was imprinted on her by her dad, who had tremendous respect for Native Alaskans – and they returned the love and respect he showed them.
“They loved him so much, and he loved them. It was a cool experience to see all the little communities that make up Alaska, and what great friendships he had all over,” she said. Those were the days – before Statehood — when trapped fur and ivory carvings were commonly bartered and gifted items.
“My dad bought lots of furs from trappers,” she recalled of the lifestyle that has all but disappeared in the 57 years since Alaska became a state.
Cathy attended Catholic schools and Lathrop High School in Fairbanks, taking advanced placement classes. She wasn’t a school jock, but more of the “geek that took four years of Latin.”
She went to the University of Michigan, because she was not able to study nursing in Alaska and because it had a great football team. Between high school and college, however, she worked as an intern for U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. She and other interns were able to live at the Stevens’ Bethesda, Maryland home that summer, a time she cherishes.
She remembers of Stevens: “He really had a heart for rural Alaskans. He cared about their health, about sanitation, communicable diseases, vaccinations — all of it.” As a nursing-bound student, that stuck with her.
Cathy always wanted to study political science, but her mother had convinced her that nursing was a steadier option, that there would always be work.
Her mom was right. As a nurse practitioner, she worked in the North Slope School District for years, providing health care to people whose families she had first met as a child, going with her father from village to village. After he passed, she felt she was following in his footsteps in many ways, to help rural communities.
The experience helped form who she is today as a senator, one who not only knows the map of Alaska, but has been intimately involved with so many people who live in places few can find on that map.
“We are such a big and diverse state, and I think we forget that sometimes, living here in Anchorage. We get into that big-city thinking.”
But walking door-to-door in her district, which stretches from Portage north into the hillsides of Anchorage, she also is reminded that we’re still a small state.
“I met a young man in my district who asked me how long I’d been in the state. And when I told him about growing up with Wien Airlines, he said he was part of the Wien “family,” too. And it was like a family, growing up with Wien.”
That man is now a constituent of hers and is involved in Arctic policy issues in Alaska.
Cathy also worked as a critical care nurse, leaving that stressful vocation in 1980 as her second child arrived. She and her husband Richard had decided that day care, nannies and babysitters were not how they wanted to raise their children. So Cathy raised and homeschooled their three children up until their high school years.
She ran a 24-hour crisis hotline, volunteered, and for a while was a dressmaker, making wedding, bridesmaid and career suits for women at home, with her sewing machine.
Richard, who was an engineer, had gone into teaching at a Christian school, and the dressmaking helped ends meet during those years.
But there were times, during the economic crash of the ‘80s, when the pocketbook was empty.
“In the summer of 1986, we ran out of grocery money, and we just had to eek by until school started and Rich was getting a paycheck again,” she recalled. The experience gives her not just sympathy, but greater empathy for people going through tough times. She’s been there.
Cathy got involved in politics by taking part in her Republican local district meetings, and eventually working on campaigns. Finally, when Sen. Con Bunde was getting ready to retire, she threw her hat in the ring, walking her sprawling district from December of 2009 until October of 2010.
Redistricting changed her boundaries and she had to run in 2012, and 2014. Now she faces the biggest bank account in Alaska, the Big Labor one bankrolling her fiercest opponent yet, AFL-CIO President Vince Beltrami.
But she goes back to her faith, her family and her core principles time and again, to simply do the right thing every day, “Never get discouraged. Never give up.” She’s faced tough opponents before, and she has dug deep into her faith to shield herself from the character assaults and the lies.
“They are saying so many things that just aren’t true. They’re saying I voted against Erin’s Law, when I voted for it. They’re saying I voted against the law enforcement survivor’s bill, when we didn’t even get to vote on it due to procedural questions.” The House had already adjourned, so legal fixes to that bill could not be made, she said.
Although she is being outspent by Big Labor dollars, she won’t be outworked — either in her efforts to meet with every constituent at his or her door, or the work that she’ll do for them in Juneau.
But she’s also proud of being a grandmother, and always introduces herself as one in every public forum — as “a wife, a mother, and a grandmother.”
It is said that if you want to see Sen. Giessel really smile, just ask her about her grandchildren. She’ll be grinning from ear to ear.