Stennis Space Center, Miss.
August 25, 2004
Reconnecting With Past, Pursuing Future
While doing her part to ensure America's future in space, Denise Wolfe Catone, who serves as a Human Resources Officer at NASA's Stennis Space Center (SSC), in South Mississippi, found herself reconnecting with her own forgotten past.
With fair skin and auburn hair, Catone looks more Irish than Native American. But today she respectfully honors her heritage as a member of the Chickasaw Nation.
"I've always known I was part Native American," said Catone. "It just wasn't something my family discussed often," she explained. As a child, Catone knew her father, Leo Wolfe, was one-half Chickasaw and had attended Chilocco Indian School, a boarding school established near the Kansas border by the U.S. government in 1884 to educate children of the Oklahoma tribes. Her father, a decorated World War II veteran, talked little about his heritage.
At the age of 17, Catone quit college and joined the U.S. Women's Army Corps. It was 1967, the height of the Vietnam War, and she wanted to follow her parents' example and serve her country. Her father had been awarded a Purple Heart in World War II, and her mother had served in the Women's Army Corps in Europe in World War II.
Catone's military assignment began at Fort McClellan in Anniston, Ala., where she earned the right to raise and lower the post's flag each day, a detail then rarely assigned to women. In 1970, serving overseas in Heidelberg, Germany, as an administrative specialist, she met and married her husband. She left the Women's Army Corps not long afterward and returned to the United States.
In the next 12 years, Catone earned a bachelor's degree in biology from California State University, Sacramento, and a master's degree in systems and safety management from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Even as she grew professionally, Catone had yet to renew her interest in her heritage.
When Catone became a personnel specialist at SSC in 1987, though, she decided to become involved with the center's Native American heritage activities and began researching her family history, which proved eye opening.
"To be acknowledged as a member of the Chickasaw Nation, I had to trace my family lineage," Catone said. "I submitted birth and marriage certificates to the Bureau of Indian Affairs within the Department of the Interior," she added.
When she received the letter indicating that she had met the requirements to be designated a member of the Chicasaw Nation, Catone was "disconcerted," she recalled, to realize the action had been handled by the Department of the Interior's Real Property Management division. "It makes me appreciate where we are today," she said.
By the time Catone transferred in 2000 to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, where she served as a human resources specialist, she had become fully involved in heritage awareness efforts. One of her proudest moments came in November 2002, when John Herrington, the first tribally registered Native American astronaut and a fellow member of the Chickasaw Nation, flew aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. Catone helped organize NASA-sponsored activities that honored Herrington's heritage.
"It was through NASA that I truly re-established my ties with the Chickasaw Nation," Catone said with gratitude.
Catone served as an advisor and counselor to the Senior Executive Service Corps at Kennedy, the personnel system that covers most of the top managerial, supervisory and policy positions in the executive branch of the federal government.
She recently spent six months honing her own leadership skills under the tutelage of KSC Director Jim Kennedy. "The people of NASA are tremendous," Catone said. "There is a great wealth of knowledge and an immense commitment to our country," she added. But the agency's value and importance runs deeper still, she said.
Catone returned to SSC to become the Human Resources Officer. "NASA makes dreams come true, and becoming the Human Resources Officer for Stennis is the fulfillment of my career dream on my journey of discovery," Cantone said.
Media organizations interested in interviewing Catone should contact Rebecca Strecker, Stennis Space Center Public Affairs at: 228/ 688-3341.
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