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Olson: ‘Spooknik’ was tops for Halloween ’57

It’s the Halloween season, and lots of kids and adults are trying to decide what they’ll be this year.

There’s plenty of spooky stuff to choose from: Vampires are big these days. Zombies are trending up. And of course there are the presidential candidates.

But what was scaring America and DeKalb County in October 1957?

It was a little metal ball with four antennas and a one-watt radio transmitter that became the first satellite ever to orbit Earth: Sputnik.

The Soviet Union launched Sputnik-1 on Oct. 4, 1957, and later heard the beep-beep-beep sound that the transmitter sent back to Earth. It was a groundbreaking scientific accomplishment.

It also triggered a national panic in the United States, which responded by pouring money into education and starting a full-blown Space Race against the Godless Red Horde. President Eisenhower called it the “Sputnik Crisis.”

Anthony Japuntich was 13 and living in DeKalb at the time. The episode gave his mother a brilliant idea for a costume that would eventually win a prize at the annual Halloween parade through downtown DeKalb: “Spooknik.”

“She bought a big cardboard box and the white paper and all that and I started the work on it,” Japuntich, now 68 and living in Georgia, said. “I helped make the costume, and then was sick [on Halloween]. I couldn’t go out.”

So Japuntich’s little brother, 8-year-old Charlie, ended up parading down Lincoln Highway in the Spooknik getup.  He looks like a giant marshmallow, and the cone-shaped hat he’s wearing is supposed to look like the rocket that launched Spooknik into orbit.

“There were probably different prizes, but he won the first prize, the big prize,” Japuntich said. “… I don’t remember what it was.”

A Daily Chronicle reporter snapped Charlie’s photo as he walked alongside a family friend named Johnny Groves. The family eventually got a couple of copies from the newspaper.

Japuntich, who moved to Georgia the summer before he started high school, has followed a winding path. He served in the Vietnam War, and later in the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. He’s also worked with police departments and held a job as a chief of police, and later went to Bible college and became a pastor.

He’s now retired.

Sadly, Charlie died in September 2001, Japuntich said.

An article he recently saw about the 55th anniversary of the Sputnik launch made him remember the costume. He dug out the photo from an old album, scanned it and sent it to me.

“When I was a kid, Halloween was a big deal up in DeKalb, they had a big Halloween parade every year and at the end of the parade they had a big party for all the kids,” Japuntich said. “I can remember going to one of them and they had kids sitting on the floor, hundreds and hundreds of kids, all the kids got candy and they had entertainment,

“I remember one year there was a ventriloquist with his dummy.”

Although Halloween’s still a big deal, 1957 was probably the only year that featured Spooknik.

• • •

Today’s bogeyman: I’d probably pick Iran as the country that poses the biggest threat to our national security today, but the country that’s drawn the most scrutiny in the presidential campaign has been one of our biggest trading partners: China.

During the latest presidential debate Tuesday, it seemed President Barack Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, were competing to show voters who would be tougher on China.

Competition from China has siphoned many manufacturing jobs out of the U.S. economy. But those in attendance at Tuesday evening’s DeKalb County Economic Development Corp. annual dinner and State of the County address at Northern Illinois University’s Ellington Ballroom heard reasons to expect the tide to turn.

Harold “Hal” Sirkin, 53, a Chicago-based senior partner and managing director with The Boston Consulting Group, said that 2015 could be the tipping point when the U.S. economy’s competitive environment and rising wages in China begin to lead to the “insourcing” of jobs that left our shores.

Sirkin specifically mentioned industries including computers, appliances, electrical, plastics, rubber, transportation, fabricated metals and furniture manufacturing as industries for which China’s appeal will begin to wane. Incidentally, manufacturers in several of those industries have a presence here in DeKalb County.

Sirkin, who co-wrote the book “Payback: Reaping the Rewards of Innovation,” said jobs already are coming to the U.S. from European and Japanese companies, as well as from China.

“The outlook for U.S. manufacturing is very bright,” Sirkin said. “… Our costs to manufacture are 15 percent lower than France and Germany, and 20 percent lower than Japan, and that’s an incredible competitive advantage.”

Sirkin told the audience that we need to “make manufacturing cool again.”

“A manufacturing job pays substantially higher than a standard service job and that’s a real asset,” Sirkins said.  “So people who are smart coming out of college, coming out of vocational school, coming out of high school, should start looking for manufacturing jobs because they can give you a good career and give us that All-American, middle-class life that we all cherish so much.“

Sounds cool to me.

• • •

Early voting: Starting Monday until Nov. 3, you can go to one of four locations in DeKalb County to cast your vote: The DeKalb County Legislative Center, NIU Holmes Student Center are for voters countywide, or, if you live in the area, the Sandwich Fire Department or Kirkland Village Hall.

If you can’t vote Election Day, go to the polls early. Otherwise, you won’t have the chance to cancel out my vote with your own.

• • •

’Sconsin drinking innovation: My wife, Kate, and I spend a lot of evenings sitting next to each other working on laptops, wondering what happened to the exciting lives it seems we used to lead.

Kate’s from Wisconsin. So when I read the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel editorial about the new phenomenon called the “Pedal Tavern” on The Associated Press wire this week, I turned to her and said, “look what your people are up to now.”

The Pedal Tavern is like a party where 16 people pedal a giant bar on wheels around the city, occasionally stopping at other bars, drinking as they go, drinking more when they get off. You can see photos online at

“By allowing drinking on board, the focus of the vehicle shifts from transporting patrons safely to encouraging more drinking,” the Journal-Sentinel opined earlier this month. “Sorry, but Wisconsin already has enough of that.”

That’s true, but at least its also encouraging the drinkers to get a little exercise.  Besides, one of the testimonials on the website says it’s “a hoot.”

I love Wisconsin.

• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 257, email, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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