At first glance, October is a month dedicated to pumpkin spice lattes, football and preparations for Halloween — a fall festival of frivolity before the dark and cold descend.
Surprisingly, though, October on the historical calendar reveals some serious inflection points in history: the Russian Revolution, which birthed the worldwide Communist movement, the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev approached, then backed away from, the abyss of nuclear war and the assassination of Anwar Sadat in Egypt, some of the first shots in the war against modernity by forerunners of Al-Qaeda.
For me and other Pendleton teachers and students, the launch on Oct. 4, 1957, of a smallish satellite the Russians termed “Sputnik” became one of these game-changing events.
The story of Sputnik begins in 1945. At that time, America bestrode the world like a colossus. Much of Europe and Asia were suffering from the ravages of World War II. Its mainland untouched in the conflict, the U.S. had emerged robust and strong and was making its influence felt in the occupation of Japan and plans for the reconstruction of Europe.
It had pulled off the technological feat of the century in the construction of the atom bomb. By contrast, our chief ideological competitor, the Soviet Union, had been victorious with the Allies in the war, but the cost was high: blasted infrastructure, shattered cities, burned out villages and towns, the legacy of the Nazi war of annihilation there. Many Soviet citizens were living in husks of houses or holes in the ground and there was widespread famine in rural areas.
Nonetheless, the Soviet leadership, as always unfettered by public opinion, focused its resources exclusively on the production of new and improved weaponry. With the help of several hundred former Nazi scientists forcibly expatriated from Soviet-occupied Germany, the USSR exploded a nuclear device in August of 1949. Space science and rocketry also became a top priority. Although the United States had announced plans in 1955 to orbit a satellite, Soviet scientists beat them to it with the launch of Sputnik in October of 1957.
To put it mildly, Sputnik shocked Americans, as much for its display of superior technical skill as its implied ability to carry a nuclear warhead. While many science enthusiasts were intrigued, accusations and recriminations from wounded pride flew in officialdom. These fortunately translated into the foundation of NASA, dramatizing American commitment to space exploration, and a new initiative designed to improve our country’s ability to understand and compete with the Soviet Union and the rest of the world.
Congress passed the National Defense Education Act less than a year after Sputnik, on Sept. 2, 1958. The act infused millions of dollars into higher education, to benefit students of math, science and foreign languages.
Sputnik and the NDEA soon made their mark on Pendleton. At Pendleton High School, Principal Don Fossatti and history and English instructors Phil Farley and Cal Plants caught the competitive spirit of Sputnik.
They had learned of a new project from the College Board, author of the SAT tests, that prepared high school teachers to offer first-year college classes. Fossatti, Farley and Plants promptly worked up syllabi and launched Advanced Placement courses in U.S. History and English. They wanted capable Pendleton students to enter college with college credits, so that they could accelerate their coursework and contribute to the country sooner. Today, PHS offers AP in a number of subjects.
A few years later, in 1965, Joyce Brockway (now Hoffman) took a job teaching foreign languages at PHS. The NDEA had financed her education at the University of Utah, where she studied French and Russian. In 1967, Hoffman received NDEA support for advanced French language training in France. She went on to teach French and Russian to hundreds of Pendleton students, many of whom used their language proficiency in the pursuit of degrees in science, foreign languages, government, area studies and law.
Hoffman’s superb instruction helped me to win grants and fellowships in successor programs to the NDEA for graduate work in Russian history and language. I have in turn taught these subjects at Baylor and Washington State University for 30 years. it is hard to imagine a more far-reaching investment in the future than the NDEA.
The Soviet Union would go on to score more wins in segments of the space race — first dog, then first man, then first female in space. But thanks largely to the United State’s constructive response to Sputnik, the country won the ultimate prize — landing a man on the moon in 1969 — and strengthened itself immeasurably in other ways. Whenever I contemplate the October sky, in which Sputnik made its fateful journey, I am always proud that Pendleton became a part of that effort.