The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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February 1, 2013

Thousands expected for Groundhog Day festivities

PORT MATILDA — Sharing festive necklaces, Punxsutawney pencils and groundhog-shaped cookies, Molly Neal brought a touch of Groundhog Day to her daughter's fifth-grade classroom.

The only thing missing was a genuine rodent. The world's most famous groundhog, Phil, will be on the job Saturday when thousands of people descend on Neal's hometown of Punxsutawney for the annual celebration of winter weather prognostication.

But it's not just those who gather at Gobbler's Knob who look forward to Groundhog Day. Neal's daughter and friends got excited about Groundhog Day and her Thursday presentation.

"Ever since I told them a month in advance, they started talking about it and looking forward to it," said Neal's daughter, Hope, who helped her mother recount Groundhog Day stories and traditions to her fifth-grade classmates at Gray's Woods Elementary School. It's an annual tradition for Neal, a high school science teacher, to make the presentations to students.

"I think they all liked it," said the bespectacled Hope, who wore a headband with a hat and furry ears that resembled a groundhog's.

Several communities around the country also have gone groundhog.

There's Staten Island Chuck, in New York; General Beauregard Lee, in Atlanta; and Wiarton Willie, in Wiarton, Ontario, among others noted by the National Climactic Data Center "Groundhog Day" Web page.

"Punxsutawney can't keep something this big to itself," the Data Center said. "Other prognosticating rodents are popping up to claim a piece of the action."

Phil is the original — and the best, Punxsutawney partisans insist.

"We welcome them all. We like the competition," said Bill Deeley, president of the Groundhog Club's Inner Circle, which oversees Punxsutawney celebrations every year.

Then he proudly pointed out that the 1993 movie "Groundhog Day," starring Bill Murray, was based on the celebration in Punxsutawney. The film, in turn, boosted the popularity of the Punxsutawney gathering.

Legend has it that if the groundhog sees his shadow, winter will last for six more weeks. No shadow means an early spring.

The record attendance was about 30,000 the year after the movie's release, said Katie Donald, executive director of the Groundhog Club. About 13,000 attend if Feb. 2 falls on a weekday.

But Groundhog Day is on Saturday this year, and Donald said 20,000 might show up.

"It's about fun. It's about the middle of winter and doing something fun and bringing people into the community. The small-town spirit," Neal said.

She delivered her fun presentation to her daughter's class in a nurturing voice. Neal, is a proud native of Punxsutawney — as evidenced by the black "Punxsutawney Phil" shirt she wore to class. Her brother-in-law is the Punxsutawney police chief, the official designated with leading Phil's tuxedo-wearing handlers through the crowd to the Gobbler's Knob tree stump from which Phil emerges.

Neal has given her good-natured presentation every year since 1997 when she started teaching at State College High School. Then, for the last 13 years, she's baked cookies and handed out Groundhog Day coloring books and other trinkets in special visits to her own children's grade school classrooms.

Neal has been to the early-morning Punxsutawney ceremony four or five times. She was going to take Hope to the event for the first time this year, but Hope has a dance competition this weekend.

But this mother-daughter duo seems quite content to share their love for Groundhog Day in the classroom.

This year's presentation, to Hope's class on Thursday, started with a quiz that ranged from easy questions like, "What day is Groundhog Day?" to a tougher one like "What is the name of the group that takes care of the groundhog?"

Several students got eight of the 10 questions correct, forcing a tie-breaker question for first-place prize: a beaded necklace that looked like it could have been thrown from a balcony on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

The tie-breaker was, "What is the population of Punxsutawney?"

"Groundhogs or people?" a student asked innocently, drawing a few giggles in the room.

The answer: About 5,900 people — and one very well-known groundhog.


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