By Gery Petrof
The day actually begins the night before, with the annual Groundhog Banquet sponsored by the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. The event is the town’s annual recognition of the Woman and Man of the Year. This year’s speaker was John Ratzenberger, the actor well-known for his role as Cliff Clavin in the long-running television sitcom, Cheers.
Ratzenberger has acted in 38 motion pictures and worked on hundreds of television projects, but his greatest passion is the importance of manufacturing and trades in America. He is a strong advocate for technical trades training for American companies.
The banquet Toast Master, Jeff Lundy, vice-president of the Groundhog Club, informed his captive audience that the theme for the evening was “Made in America.” Throughout the evening, every time he held up a sign it was a queue for the audience to shout “Made in America!”
I sat with several members of the North Central Workforce Development Board, who were in town to talk with the administration of Punxsutawney High School.
“Not everyone needs to go to college — there are great careers in the trades, and more schools need vocational programs like the great one they have here at Punxsutawney [High School],” Pam Streich, director of planning, said.
This quickly became a recurring theme in this mostly blue-collar town.
The town gets little sleep as the trek up to the Gobbler’s Knob, a natural amphitheater in the woods, begins at 3 a.m. Since there is no parking on Knob, everyone must board a shuttle bus for the short ride up the hill to the Knob.
Among those in the front row were first-timers Rachel Bellono and Jada McKendree, both seniors at Punxsutawney High. “We wanted to experience the Groundhog before we leave town for college” Rachel said, trying to stay warm in her varsity jacket.
The shuttle buses continued to drop off more and more passengers, many wearing clothing touting their schools.
Noah Stewart, a junior at Grove City College, said he and his friends were here by invitation of Groundhog Club Inner Circle member Jon Johnston, an alumnus of their school.
By 5 a.m. it was impossible to see the top of the hill. And the buses continued to arrive as the Bagel Brothers performed from the stage “The Pennsylvania Polka,” a crowd favorite.
Punxsutawney resident Martha Rupert, sporting a sign that read “Trust Phil’s Shadow,” said she has been coming to the Knob long before the movie “Groundhog Day” came out. Since the movie that stars Bill Murray and Anne MacDowell was released in 1993, the crowds have swelled, including a record 45,000 in 2002.
At 6:30 a.m. fireworks lit up the sky. Then the members Inner Circle begin their 131th trek to the stump. Jim Cantore from the Weather Channel interviewed several members during a live broadcast as they made their way through the crowd.
This past year the Groundhog Club lost a member, Bob Roberts, but his family and great-grandson Max were on hand to witness the prognostication.
After cheers of “Phil, Phil, Phil,” Bill Deely, president of the Groundhog Club, used a century-old ceremonial cane to tap on the stump to awaken Phil from his slumber.
His handlers, Ron Ploucha and John Griffiths, opened the door and lifted the feisty Phil to an adoring crowd.
Placed upon the stump, Phil spoke to Deely in “groundhogese.” Deely selected a scroll and handed it to Jeff Lundy, vice-president, who announces “Hear Ye, Hear Ye, Hear Ye!”
He then reads the prognostication:
“…I, Punxsutawney Phil, shall not dawdle
My faithful followers, I could clearly see
A beautiful, perfect shadow of me
Six more weeks of winter, it shall be!”
The crowd moaned and then cheered. Deely shrugged his shoulders, “That’s it folks.”
Later while I ate breakfast at the Punxsutawney Country Club, I sat with Groundhog Club Inner Circle member Tom Uberti, along with several locals. They all agreed that the future of Punxsutawney, and America in general, is in developing our youth with the skills to build again. This great county was built on manufacturing and skilled trades and is the hope for America, they say.
Editors Note: Gery Petrof, a freelance photographer for Cleveland Business Connects (CBC) magazine, shares his birthday with Phil and for the past 20 years has celebrated the day on Gobbler’s Knob with as many as 45,000 of his closest friends.