MERCER, Wis. - Two Mercer students were surprised May 15 when they received a national award about a very well-known figure.
Junior John Michael Klopatek and senior Heather Cihak received 2014 Smokey Bear National Award for "outstanding public service to wildlife prevention," through the U.S. Forest Service. The awards were presented during the school's award ceremony by Kelly Martinko, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources forest ranger in Mercer.
Neither Klopatek or Cihak knew they were receiving the awards.
"I was surprised," Klopatek said. "I saw a Smokey Bear award on the program, but I thought it was for a first or second grader for fire safety or something. Turns out it was for us."
The students received the award for publishing a children's book about Smokey Bear. In 2012, Cihak and Klopatek began the challenge of writing and illustrating the book through one of their classes.
The idea for the book came after Dave Sleight, of Mercer, found a local tie with Smokey.
In 1951, it was claimed the first Smokey the Bear costume was created in Virginia. However, Sleight researched it further and found the first costume had been made in Mercer.
Because of the local ties, Klopatek and Cihak decided to write the book.
"It started off as a class project, but soon it was just us two working on it," Klopatek said.
The book has been published, and copies are available at the school. When the books first arrived, Klopatek and Cihak said they were surprised how they turned out.
"It turned out so much bigger than we ever planned," Cihak said. "The school helped us publish it through community donations and it turned out really well."
Klopatek wrote the story, while Cihak drew the illustrations. In 2012, when the book was in the early planning stages, the duo had to ask the DNR for permission to use Smokey's image.
It was approved, but with one condition: Smokey's image had to be hand-drawn because he is copyrighted.
According to Cihak, back in 2012, the DNR said the drawings were "a little too thin for their liking," but it was OK.
When asked how it feels to have "published author" attached to their titles, Klopatek said it was a "really big accomplishment."
Cihak graduates Sunday and plans on attending the University of Wisconsin-Platteville to major in engineering and illustration.
Klopatek plans on attending college after he graduates next year and would like to study engineering or business.
"It's a great read," Klopatek said. "We're proud of it."
For more information, call the Mercer School District at 715-476-2154.