“So let me get this straight,” the man in the seat next to Katie said as the plane began to make its descent. This guy had spent the entire early-morning flight firing questions at her. “You like to hunt? You’re in marketing? Have a good job? You live in south Fargo?”

“Yes,” Katie answered with a tinge of hesitation in her voice, as her row-mate seemed to be putting her life history together. “Well, I don’t get it. Why are you single?” he asked. “Good question,” she thought to herself, but before she could answer he made a proud conclusion. “I’ve got someone you need to meet. It’s my boss and he’s sitting up there in first class.”

As Katie stretched her neck to figure out who “Mr. Perfect” was, she came to her own conclusion…he was the guy who bumped her out of first class!

If Katie has learned anything, it’s that life throws us challenges, choices, bumps in the road. But those hits, bad timing, and U-turns can be God’s gentle nudge toward our greatest treasures in life.

Change of plans

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"You’re pregnant, aren’t you?” Katie remembers her mom asking as she lay sick on the shower floor. Katie was a senior in high school, just days away from her eighteenth birthday. “I'm sure I looked horrible,” she recalls. “No, I'm not,” was the response to her mother. Katie had morning sickness and she hadn’t gotten her period. She was in denial. This couldn’t be happening, considering the middle-class utopia she lived in with her entrepreneur parents and three younger siblings in their quiet neighborhood nestled in south Grand Forks.

But the pregnancy test didn’t lie. She was pregnant.

“November of 1996 I had sex one time and I conceived my son; with a condom!” she proclaims. “I tell him that because it was meant to be. It was just supposed to be.” But Katie was terrified. She had a lot on the line, including the approval of her family and friends. A gifted athlete, she had a number of Division I colleges offering her scholarships to be a part of their track programs. She told her long-time boyfriend she was pregnant, but he didn’t offer the support she needed.

“He had always been really controlling,” Katie recalls. “He was from a broken home and I think I was someone he could control because there were so many factors in his life that he couldn’t control. When I told him I was pregnant, it was just a little blip on the radar for him.”

Considering Katie’s athletic future, he seemed to assume she wouldn’t continue with the pregnancy. He was wrong. January 6, 1997, on her eighteenth birthday, Katie told her parents what they already assumed and that she intended to keep her baby.

Katie now needed to look forward, but what she had foreseen in her future didn’t seem realistic anymore. Her parents disagreed. “The following week I had a college visit to the University of Georgia planned,” she remembers. “I assumed I would cancel it, but my parents were like, ‘No way!’ They encouraged me to go and then decide.”

Katie loved Georgia. And Georgia wanted Katie to be a part of the Bulldog family. “I called the coach and told him, ‘Here's the deal, I'm pregnant, but I still want to go to Georgia and I don’t know quite how I'm going to pull this off and, sorry, but you probably don’t want to offer me a scholarship.”

The Georgia coach was sensitive to Katie’s situation and offered nothing but support, telling her the scholarship was still available and they would help her along the way. Katie signed a letter of intent to attend Georgia in April, a week before the Flood of 1997 hit Grand Forks. Her senior year ended, her parents lost their business and home, but the biggest change was yet to come with the arrival of her son.

The beginning

August 20, 1997, Hunter entered the world via an emergency C-section. “School started in Georgia three weeks later. I talked a lot with my parents. I told them I couldn’t leave my baby but I wasn’t giving him up for adoption so the bottom line was, ‘I'm taking my baby with me and that’s that!’” she adamantly declared to her parents. Fred and Jane wanted the best for both their daughter and grandson. “My parents said something very telling to me,” Katie says softly. “’The baby has done nothing wrong but if you don’t take your track scholarship and just go and experience it, you will blame the baby someday.’”

On September 10, Katie boarded a plane for Georgia while Hunter stayed with her parents. “I was 18, super hormonal and emotional after having a baby,” she remembers while shaking her head. “Leaving Hunter was the hardest day of my life.”

Katie and her parents were able to establish a routine that allowed Katie to see Hunter at least once a month and also to bond from afar. “My mom had taped me reading books and she played them to Hunter so he got used to my voice and when we talked on the phone she held the phone up to him,” Katie explains of connecting during the pre-social media and FaceTime era.

“Looking back now, that was probably the bravest moment of my life,” Katie reflects on leaving for Georgia. “I'm thankful that I did. Having Hunter and still trying to fulfill my dreams was really important to me. Now I can encourage my kids to do those types of things too. I would've never known it if I hadn’t tried. I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”

As much as Georgia meant to Katie, Hunter meant more. Before returning for her second year of college she had to make a choice.

Photo: rialee photography | ria czichotzki
Photo: rialee photography | ria czichotzki

Her voice

Katie no longer had a relationship with Hunter’s father. “I think God used Hunter to save me,” she says with a smile. “Hunter became more important to me than anything else and I could break away from the unhealthiness of that relationship.”

Katie was ready to start her life in Georgia with Hunter. She was registered for class and had family housing and daycare established. But before she left that fall, Hunter’s father filed for joint custody. “Basically there was a lot of old, past relationship stuff that resurfaced where he didn’t really want custody, he just really wanted me to be in North Dakota,” Katie states. “So I had a judge tell me I needed to ‘tend to my maternal responsibilities.’ Either I had to raise Hunter in North Dakota or give up custody.”

Katie was not about to give up custody. But she also knew it was unfair she had to forfeit her scholarship and athletic endeavors while Hunter’s father wasn’t held to the same standard. “I had an amazing attorney who really empowered me to be strong and fight.”

And she fought all the way to the Supreme Court of North Dakota with the support of her parents, friends, and Georgia family. After six months the ruling on Katie’s case was overturned and she was granted primary physical custody. Katie was free to take Hunter back to Georgia. And that was the plan, until one night, while she was waitressing in Grand Forks, the University of North Dakota Athletic Director offered her a position in the marketing department as an intern related to the newly built Alerus Center and Ralph Engelstad Arena.

Katie was no stranger to the marketing/advertising world because her parents owned a successful advertising agency for many years. This opportunity solidified a feeling that had been growing in Katie – that she should raise her son in North Dakota, close to family. She enrolled at the University of North Dakota, joined the track team, accepted the marketing internship position, and continued to work as a waitress and at the local grocery store on the weekends.

To say Katie was busy was an understatement, but she did what she needed to do for herself and her son. Hunter would stay with his father every other weekend and on those weekends, Katie would waitress and take on additional shifts at the grocery store to earn extra money.

“I look back at those years and I didn’t know that I was trusting a greater God’s plan,” Katie reflects. “But that was what I was doing. I was doing what my mom always told me, ‘Do the next thing.’ Just do the next thing! I learned that I just had to do the next thing and trust that things were going to work out.”

A year after Hunter’s father fought for joint custody, he moved to the west coast. The custody arrangement changed from every other weekend to five visits a year. Katie was happy to not have the continual upheaval of Hunter going between two homes, but that year of change, conflict, and opportunity was anything but easy.

Moving forward

As Katie worked, went to school, and competed and then coached in the track arena, she was able to rely on a close group of friends to pitch in with Hunter as she needed. “Those women were just as much a part of raising him as I was,” she proudly states. “We lived in the same house and had so much fun, but they were a special crew who were willing to live with a single mom and her kid when he was two, three, four, five years old. It was pretty special.”

Looking back, Karla Olson has only admiration for the friend she first met in college. “Katie always put her son first. Period!” Karla states. “She always had time for Hunter, had a “grown-up meal” on the table every night, he was in activities, he had the same routine – a very stable environment. I don’t know how she did it!”

After graduating from UND, Katie took a position with a local advertising agency in Grand Forks and found her professional passion: promoting agriculture. Although she was raised in the city, Katie was always a farm girl at heart, cherishing time spent on her fourth-generation family farm. The agency had branched off to form an agriculturally focused division with its main office in Fargo. Katie found her niche. She was able to form a connection with clients and help produce the work they needed to grow their businesses, while understanding the agency’s need to be profitable as well.

The young family moved to Fargo as Hunter started Kindergarten. That’s when Hunter started asking about having a dad. “He came home once and said, “I would really like a dad,” and I replied, ‘Well, you have a dad,’” Katie recalls. Hunter knew that, but he wanted a dad that would live with him and his mom all the time like his friends had. “Well, you can pray about that but it’s not happening right now,” Katie remembers telling her son. “Then Hunter said, ‘Well, I was thinking maybe Jacob’s dad would be good.’ I said, ‘Well, Jacob’s dad is married to Jacob’s mom! He’s not available,’” Katie recalls with a laugh.

Katie was open to having someone to share her and Hunter’s lives with, but who? “I knew that I wanted to marry someone like my dad, but I honestly felt like there weren’t guys out there like that anymore. Past relationships, disappointing dates, and backfired set-ups had tainted Katie’s view of potential suitors. “I decided that I wasn’t going to date anybody, nobody!” she states matter-of-factly. “No dates, no blind dates. I was so tired of being set up that I wasn’t going to date anybody for a year and I was just going to focus on my career and Hunter. I had had enough of that scene.”

And a year later she got on that plane.

By chance

A year of no dating had passed. Katie’s career was flourishing. Hunter was happy and healthy. Now it was July and Katie wasn’t looking forward to the following four weeks. As part of their custody plan, Hunter spent the month of July in Washington with his dad. “It was a really lonely month for me,” Katie recalls. “I hated July so I purposely booked a ton of business that month.”

One of Katie’s advertising agency’s offices was in Kansas City and she traveled there often. She had her routine down pat: leave Fargo on Northwest’s 5 a.m., Monday flight; connection in Minneapolis; walk down F concourse; stop at Burger King; continue to gate; check on upgrade for flight to Kansas City (she always got an upgrade); 8:30am land in Kansas City; get cab; at the office by 9 a.m. She had done it so many times she could practically do it with her eyes closed.

Katie took her seat as the man sitting next to her, Josh, recognized her from the earlier Fargo flight. The two chatted, or, more precisely, Katie answered Josh’s barrage of life questions. As the plane began its descent, he declared, “I've got someone you need to meet.” Katie wasn’t interested. But Josh insisted. “It’s my boss. You should meet him. He's right up there,” as he motioned to first class.

His name was Nathan and he was in pharmaceutical sales living in Bismarck. “You’ve got to give me your card,” Josh urged. “We'll call you tomorrow.” Katie rushed to deplane, but not before she walked by Nathan and they exchanged smiles. Before Katie could get a cab, Josh asked one last time for her number so he could introduce her to Nathan. She finally gave in.

Just as he promised, the next day Katie’s phone rang, “Hi, this is Josh from the airplane.” And that night, Katie met Nathan and she knew he was the “real deal.”

“I think I had built up so many walls of resistance; I had been broken and defeated,” Katie states about her past relationships. “I was in a good place, finally. I was confident, I was sure of myself, my career was going really well, Hunter was going into second grade. I knew who I was, finally. It was perfect timing.”

Photo: rialee photography | ria czichotzki
Photo: rialee photography | ria czichotzki

A week after their meeting in Kansas City, Nathan came to Fargo to take Katie to dinner. “I met him at the door of my house and told him, ‘I have a son. He's not here right now. He's seven years old and if you're not cool with that then it’s not cool that we go out.’” If Nathan had a problem with that, then they were simply done right then and there. “I didn’t have any reservation of any kind,” Nathan says about starting his relationship with Katie. “She made it clear that Hunter was the most important thing in her life.” And Nathan could see nothing wrong with that. “We all have a past and those experiences make us who we are today.”

The woman he saw was an energetic and outgoing person. “She is the kind of person who gives everyone else around her energy,” Nathan says. “She is someone who is strong in her faith and in who she is.”

A year and three months after meeting in Kansas City, Katie, Nathan, and Hunter became a family. “I just knew this was it,” Katie says about knowing very early on that Nathan would be her husband. “I knew he wasn’t going to hurt me or Hunter. I knew I could trust him.”

“My wife is my best friend,” Nathan gushes. “Our marriage and relationship have grown into something more than I could have ever imagined it could be.”

Lessons learned

The last eight years of marriage have presented plenty of changes for Katie and her family. The couple moved to Nathan’s hometown of Wishek, North Dakota (a small farming community 97 miles from the nearest Starbucks), where he’s a part of the family’s lumber and construction business. Daughters Elizabeth (7) and Anika (5) love to watch big brother Hunter (17) participate in his various athletic and academic activities. And Katie has continued to follow her passion of agriculture, most recently as an independent marketing consultant and speaker, which allows her to work from home on the things she is passionate about.

“Katie makes a difference,” Karla says about her friend. “There are so many things that most of us sit back and watch happen. But Katie figures out a way to improve things, whether it is a pre-school program, hot-lunch program, agriculture, improving rural communities—she works for what she believes in. I am inspired by her to do more!”

Katie has learned a lot over the years with a plethora of life experience to fall back on. She has been a pregnant teen, a working single mom, college athlete, wife, mother of three, and business owner. Each phase of her life has taught her lessons she never could have imagined.

Most important? Everyone has a story.

“I don’t think anybody’s story is better than anybody else’s, but I do think it’s your choice to define your story,” she says. “You have to figure out who you are and what choices you're going to make and base them on truth. I just really focused on not being a statistic. That was my big thing. I'm just not going to be some statistic. I have a richly blessed life.”

And the greatest products of her story are the three people looking up to her. Elizabeth sees the time her mom spends with her as a big bonus. “Mommy reads with me, plays with me, and prays with me,” she says.

And little sister Anika agrees. “Mommy counts with me, does pre-school, and sings with me. She also helps me take care of my cats!”

Photo: rialee photography | ria czichotzki
Photo: rialee photography | ria czichotzki

A mature Hunter has a special love and admiration for his mom, considering the journey they have been on together. “Having to be a single mom with a rambunctious kid like me would not have been easy,” he admits with a smile. “But through all of the hardships we went through she always did the best thing for me and her perseverance really showed.”

As an 18-year-old holding her son for the first time, Katie couldn’t have imagined how quickly the time would pass. “Hunter will leave us in two years and I've never lived my adult life without him,” she says as the tears well up in her eyes. “He's defined my adulthood. He changed my life. I would say Hunter saved me. I mean he did. God used him to save me.”

And as that once little boy reflects on his mom, Katie can be assured her story is impactful.

“Honestly,” Hunter confides, “my mom makes a conscious effort daily to better herself in some way and, as her son, that makes me pretty proud. How can you not be proud of someone like that?”