For four months, Clarice Grekoff kept an important secret from her fiancé.
To keep him in the dark, she told him lie on top of lie on top of lie.
But she had a good reason. For those four months, Grekoff had been planning a surprise wedding for Nick Stolp, who had asked her to marry him nearly three years ago.
It was going to be completely unexpected and beautiful, and Grekoff was going to get the satisfaction of seeing that look on his face when he found out.
And she almost pulled it off.
June 26 was a day that many in Grekoff’s and Stolp’s families had been anticipating for a long time.
The couple has been together off and on for the last 14 years. They had two daughters together, then separated. They co-parented for a while and then got back together and had another girl.
They’d been engaged for close to three years. They just never got around to doing the whole wedding thing. At the beginning of 2020, they started to plan a wedding, but then the COVID-19 pandemic happened and put everything on hold.
Then, on Valentine’s Day this year, Grekoff had a crazy idea. What if she planned her own wedding, keeping her fiancé in the dark the entire time, and surprised him on the day of their nuptials?
“We always try to outdo each other for surprises,” she said. “I was trying to think of a way to beat him at his own game.”
She was trying to top Stolp’s biggest surprise, which was the proposal three years ago. He had her two older daughters make signs that read, “Will you marry Dad?” and surprised her as she came out of the bathroom.
“The girls were bawling already, they couldn’t even say anything. He came around and asked me to marry him,” Grekoff said.
How do you top a proposal like that?
With a surprise wedding, of course.
She didn’t have any doubts, but she had some doubters, which is to be expected with a surprise wedding. Some people worried that he’d say no. Others called it “a horrible idea,” Grekoff said, while someone even said it felt like she was trapping her fiancé into saying yes.
But she was confident.
“If I felt anything was going to go wrong with this, do you think I would’ve done all of this and paid for all of this myself? I’m pretty sure that he’s going to be OK with this happening,” she said before the big day.
After all, he was the one who initially popped the question.
“That’s a pretty big step,” she said.
To pull off a big surprise, you have to get used to lying, or at least stretching the truth just enough, Grekoff said.
“I knew she could pull it off,” said her mom, Brandy McKee. “She can be sneaky.”
While she may be sneaky, she’s not a natural-born liar.
“The crazy thing is, I’m not even a liar,” she said. “I hate lying.”
“Usually she tattles on herself,” Stolp added.
It’s stressful having to “snowball into bigger lies,” Grekoff said, and McKee could tell it was bothering her daughter.
“She said, ‘Mom, this is driving me crazy.’ I said, ‘You’ve got this, Clarice,’” McKee said.
But for someone who calls herself “a horrible liar,” Grekoff adapted quite nicely.
She had it all planned out. On the day of the wedding, Stolp’s friend Mike Summers was going to propose to his girlfriend. Stolp had to chauffeur Summers’ girlfriend around town on a scavenger hunt. To look the part of a chauffeur, Summers took Stolp to YTT Bridal & Formal Wear and got him fitted for a suit.
“I felt bad about having to con Nick a little bit, but it was for a good cause,” Summers said.
The store’s owner played his part well, Summers said, shaking his hand and congratulating Summers.
“He was giving me advice on the proposal. He really sold it,” he said.
In hindsight, Stolp said he thought it “odd,” since he and Summers aren’t super close friends. But in that moment, he didn’t suspect anything.
After Stolp was done chauffeuring Summers’ girlfriend, they were going to go to Good Times, where Grekoff and Stolp’s groomsmen would be waiting, and that was where Stolp was going to learn about the surprise.
Getting Stolp’s ring size was tricky, Grekoff said, but she figured it out.
Stolp’s grandfather, who passed away not too long ago, was a jeweler. Stolp’s mom called him, saying she was going through his grandfather’s belongings. She asked him for his ring size, just in case she came across anything that fit.
That didn’t set off any alarms in Stolp’s mind.
“That could not have been any more stealthy,” he said.
On the other end, a simple question would conjure up thoughts of, “Does he know?”
One day Grekoff straightened her hair, much to Stolp’s surprise. He asked her what she was doing. Unsure of whether he suspected anything, she told him she had an interview.
Another time, she got her makeup done for “a little practice run” before the wedding.
“It didn’t turn out good on his end. He hated it,” she said.
But she told him her friend was going through beauty school and that this could count toward her credit, which “technically wasn’t a lie.”
Spilling the beans
Grekoff said she wasn’t worried about spilling the secret herself. But she was concerned about the 10 to 12 people who were in on it.
“There’s been no drinking, because then it could slip out,” said Missi Suchor, Grekoff’s friend and wedding planner.
Grekoff said some friends refused to hang out with them because they feared they’d let it out.
But the surprise ultimately was given up by Grekoff’s herself, and the secret didn’t slip out by accident.
With events snowballing to the big day, Grekoff said she had a feeling that she had to tell Stolp the truth.
For Father’s Day, Grekoff gave him a card with a fake marriage license in it. She planned to take him to the Campbell County Clerk’s office a few days before the wedding to sign a real marriage license.
But after months of stealth planning and just five days before the wedding, she couldn’t keep the secret anymore. Stolp was going to be out of town the rest of the week for work. But she also needed him to sign the marriage license that week. As they were driving to Moorcroft, she finally let it out.
“It was a pretty good surprise, to be honest,” Stolp said. “I did not see any of it coming. She’s very sneaky.”
Perhaps the most surprising part of it all was that she and the dozen or so people who knew about the surprise wedding were able to keep the secret from Stolp for that long.
“I was nervous about his reaction for sure, but I was glad that it could finally be out,” Grekoff said.
Four months of stress, walking on eggshells and covering her tracks were finally over. Now, she could focus on the wedding without hiding it from the man she was going to marry.
Rain, rain, go away
The evening of the wedding, people worked quickly to set up a reception in the couple’s garage. The downpour the past two days brought more than a half-inch of rain on Campbell County, turning the hard, dry dirt into mud.
Dark clouds loomed to the west and thunder rumbled as centerpieces and tablecloths were set up next to garden tools and camping chairs.
Suchor and McKee were “freaking out all day about the rain.”
But the bride was calm, cool and collected. After spending the last four months planning a surprise wedding, a little downpour wasn’t going to rain on her parade.
“I was like, ‘I’ve made it. This is it. We’re here. Regardless of where we’re getting married, it’s still happening,’” Grekoff said.
And instead of holding the ceremony outside, dozens of people were crammed into a basement, where lights and candles hung from wooden beams.
Like everything else about the wedding, Grekoff put a unique touch on it. Dressed in black, and with heavy makeup on her face, she stood in front of the photo booth that had been set up for guests. Replicas of human skulls adorned tables set up against the wall, while the skull of a buck hung on a wall to Grekoff’s right.
She smiled as her two oldest daughters, Lilly and Teagan, walked in, followed by Stolp, who carried their youngest, Lydia.
“Are we ready to get these people hitched finally?” wedding officiant Tisha Short asked the crowd.
In sickness and in health
Stolp said he proposed to Grekoff because she completes him.
“She’s the yin to my yang, she’s the jelly to my peanut butter,” he said. “She’s got qualities I don’t have, and she makes me more whole.”
In February, soon after she began planning the surprise, Grekoff got extremely sick. She made multiple trips to the emergency room, often only three to four days apart. Her liver almost shut down and her skin turned yellow.
When she was at her sickest, when she couldn’t fend for herself, she realized “how much he cared for me.”
“Seeing how much he was there for me and how much just me even being sick affected him and his feelings, just seeing it made me look at it in a different light,” she said. “If he loved me when I was yellow, he’s going to love me no matter what.”
Grekoff said she would do it all over again and has no regrets. Besides getting to spend the rest of her life with her best friend, she’s looking forward to not having to lie anymore.
“No more lies,” she said. “Unless there’s another surprise that I might come up with later.
“I’m pregnant,” she abruptly added.
That hung in the air, and Stolp and McKee looked at Grekoff, unsure if this was still part of her big ruse.
“I’m joking,” she said quickly. “I’m joking.”
Before Campbell County residents get to vote on seven potential community college board trustees, they have a chance to get a better idea of who they could potentially put in charge of a new community college district for Gillette College.
The League of Women Voters hosted a forum this week for the 23 trustee candidates who will be on the ballot alongside the question for or against an independent community college district centered around Gillette College.
The seven with the most votes will become the inaugural district board, if the question to create the district passes.
That board will have the power to decide how much to tax the county — up to 4 mills — to pay for operations while also being responsible for hiring the district’s CEO, navigating Gillette College’s split from its current district and guiding the new entity through up to five years of accreditation.
It’s a tall task, but one that many candidates are embracing.
Election Day is Aug. 17, but early voting began Friday.
While the questions and answers varied throughout the forum, many of the candidates were aligned on key issues such as a desire for autonomy, developing programs catered to local needs and having the college play a crucial part in the county’s future.
The pre-Fourth of July start date for early voting is apropos of the push for independence and autonomy that has in part propelled the campaign for an independent district.
“It’s about having a local voice,” said Tracy Wasserburger at the forum. “It’s about having local control.”
Wasserburger is one of several current Gillette College Advisory Board members who entered the race. Advisory Board Chairman Brian Worthen did not make it to the forum, but current board members Josh McGrath and Robert Palmer echoed the need for autonomy.
“I don’t want the decisions made 100 miles up the road,” McGrath said, referring to the Northern Wyoming Community College District that oversees Gillette College with a board entirely made up of trustees from Sheridan.
“I think we have to be able to adapt to industry and business in general,” McGrath said. “Those things change, they’re not stagnant, they’re ever-evolving. Whether it’s the coal industry, the oil industry, the ranching industry, local business, tech — any of it. We have to be able to adapt.”
Dan Baker, who has worked at the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines and is now operations manager for Prairie Eagle Mining, said he is “100%, as a coal miner, for the Gillette College and we need to vote ‘yes.’”
Given that much of the tax burden would fall on the energy industry and that many of the program offerings could be catered to that industry’s needs, he said the new district’s board should have representation with the mines in mind.
“I don’t think we can afford not to have the Gillette College,” Baker said. “We’ve got to be able to make our own decisions, we don’t need somebody from another county deciding what we do.”
Independence for Campbell County taxpayers would come at a cost. And while the aims and ambitions have been spoken, how much achieving those goals will cost is still undetermined.
Paying for it
The vote for a new college district allows the board of trustees to tax up to 4 mills. Taxing the full 4 mills allows the district to receive state funding while taxing less than 4 — as proponents have suggested would likely be the case — causes the district to rely on its own funding separate from state appropriations.
Although the majority of candidates are in favor of the new district, there was limited talk at the forum about how much a new district should or would tax.
“I, as a fiscal conservative, believe that we need to be prudent with our own resources,” said Scott Clem, a local pastor and former state legislator. “I don’t believe we would need to tax the full 4 mills. That may be a little premature on my part, but I think somewhere between 3 and 4 mills is probably the adequate area.”
Jacob Dalby, a rancher and co-founder of the Anti-tax Coalition PAC, has been open in his stance against creating the new college district. Even so, he’s running to be on the board if voters go along with the proposal.
“This is a huge tax burden on our local industries and I do encourage everybody to get out and vote,” Dalby said. “Remember the tax burden on our industry.”
Despite taking lead on the local campaign against the new district, Dalby said he is running to become one of its trustees to keep taxes at a minimum.
“Yes, I do want to see the college thrive in Gillette, if it does pass, but not at the risk of throwing industry down the tube,” Dalby said.
Kimberly Glass Dalby, who is Jacob’s mother, also is running for the new district’s board of trustees. She attended Gillette College in the early 2000s as a non-traditional student and spoke about building a workforce based on the community’s needs and strengths.
“Obviously, I’m not one of the professional board people,” she said. “I’m just a Campbell County resident, rancher, who wants to keep taxes down, who wants to see Campbell County grow in a positive manner (with) positive education.”
To get to the ballot, those leading the charge for an independent district had to clear the Wyoming Community College Commission then the state Legislature, where it was consistently suggested that the new district would tax less than 4 mills and therefore not use state funds that can be dispersed among what would be the other seven community college districts in Wyoming.
“Based on projected budget for the college, it is very unlikely that the 4 mills that are allowed by law are going to be needed to run the college,” said attorney Frank Stevens. “However, it is a minimal and it is a fair tax.”
Stevens added that the community had already invested millions of dollars into the college and campus over the years. Also, he said the tax money invested into the new district would recycle back through and benefit businesses and people in the community directly.
“We’ve got to keep dreaming,” said retired science teacher Nello Williams. “I wish I knew what the planet Earth is going to be like in 15 years. And that’s what we have to think about. What is the planet Earth going to be like in 15 years? What is Gillette going to be like in 15 years?”
If that future involves more taxes, then he said that is the necessary price to pay for independence and adaptability.
“It’s going to raise everybody’s taxes a little bit, but that’s OK,” Williams said. “Because Gillette got to where it is today because we voted for taxes.”
With autonomy would come greater opportunity to expand, cut or build on Gillette College’s current program offerings. Several candidates had ideas for how the school’s offerings could adapt better to local industry needs.
Maggi McCreery talked about working with employers who seek Gillette College graduates “so we know how to tailor the studies” and improve the county’s workforce.
“We need to grow the college,” McCreery said.
The college’s nursing program was named by multiple candidates as a program that would benefit from expansion.
“It’s something we’ve been trying to do for a number of years,” said candidate Nick Jessen. “We can’t produce enough nurses for our local community let alone for them to go outside our community.”
Joy Beattie, a physical therapist for the Campbell County School District, talked of potentially expanding the school’s nursing offerings to a four-year program.
“We can draw from many other counties to support our nursing program with students from there,” Beattie said.
Similar to Beattie, Campbell County Public Health Response Coordinator Ivy McGowan-Castleberry talked about expanding the types of degree and certificate programs offered through the college.
“One of the things I would like for us to be able to focus on is the development of not just degree programs, but certificate programs that are meaningful to our local industries and our local employers,” she said.
As many of the candidates said, decisions on future program offerings should incorporate feedback from local industry and community stakeholders to meet workforce needs.
“Continue with the programs that work, improve the ones that are a little weak and talk to industry to see what they need,” said Kevin Anders, a local engineer. “Not only do we need to talk to industry, we need to talk to the community.”
Part of building on the existing program offerings would include hiring strong educators and faculty, said Josh Dillinger, a photography teacher. He also suggested emphasizing the arts when looking to improve the college’s program offerings.
“Those need to be back in our college,” Dillinger said. “We have amazing facilities in our community that we’ve already invested in. We should be pumping out students that are passionate about the arts and bringing those facilities into the next level as well.”
Jed Jensen, who is retired from his post as the Gillette College Dean of Career and Technical Education, said that he has experience with local employers and discussing with them how the college could benefit their labor needs.
“The college is an economic driver for the community and I think it’s important that our college continue to be an economic driver for the community,” Jensen said.
As a local business owner, Ryan Allen spoke of the importance of local control, assembling a cooperative team of trustees and honing in on the programs that work, as well as those that don’t.
“If something’s working, expand on it. If it’s not working, we need to review that,” Allen said. “You can’t be opposed to cutting something, to be opposed, for the sake of cuts. Everything has to move forward with purpose.”
Alison Ochs Gee, a local attorney, spoke of the college as a potential community problem solver. When preparing the current workforce for the future economy, she said the college could cater to some of the “Carbon Valley” jobs that may be coming this way down the line.
“We need to prepare the future workforce to help work on those projects,” she said. “What better way to do it than with local people who have experience in industry and are maybe looking for a transition in work?”
Despite last summer’s program cuts — which included the Gillette College sports programs other than rodeo — being the inciting incident toward forming an independent district, sports were seldom mentioned during the forum. But the cultural cache of extracurricular activities in general was touted by some candidates.
Larry Smith, who helped establish and is the former president of the college’s booster club, spoke about the importance of extracurriculars to the college and community.
“It brings vitality to a campus, it brings people to the campus,” Smith said. “If you have athletics or activities, people will come watch that.
“I believe it just adds life to a campus.”
The future of Campbell County
The impending results of the election, and whether or not Gillette College achieves autonomy, was described as one of the most important votes in the county’s history by some candidates at the forum.
Palmer, who was integral to the task force that shepherded the county’s application to become an independent district through the Wyoming Community College Commission last fall, said it is up there as one of the most important votes the county has had.
He alluded to the 1976 vote on the Optional 1% Sales Tax, which passed and has gone on to be renewed every it has been on the ballot and has paid for infrastructure, city and county services, nonprofit organizations and a number of other things that made Campbell County the community it is today. The college vote, he said, could parallel the magnitude of that decision when looked back on years from now.
“Imagine if we look now 50 years later at an independent community college district and all of the success, and all the achievements … and all the lives we’ve been able to change because we had a Gillette Community College District,” Palmer said.
“And we had people on the board of trustees and individuals who cared about student success and cared about getting involved in making sure that we are the premiere community college,” he added.
Anne Ziegenhorn, an educator from Wright, said that she entered the race so the southern part of the county is represented on the new district board. She said a new district and the programs it could offer may be critical to the county’s future economic development.
“If we don’t bring in more businesses and we don’t bring in the education to build more businesses, that could lead to a dying community, a dying county,” Ziegenhorn said.
Although it is unclear if the county’s population will increase, decrease or flatline in the coming years, many candidates had one clear direction for Gillette College: growth.
“We’re trying to produce the best person to get out there and be the most successful that they can possibly be,” said educator and candidate Jason Linduska.
He went on to say his vision is to “grow (the college) and continually grow it and not be satisfied with what we have.”
With 22 candidates in attendance pleading their cases, Olin Oedekoven credited the importance of the vote for the outsized turnout of candidates for the select seven seats.
“We just really believe it’s so important for the economic vitality of our community, economic transformation, service to our community and ultimately quality of life,” Oedekoven said. “Everyone benefits from a vital Gillette College.”