Mon. Feb 26th, 2024

PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. (AP) — Amid the possibility of war with Iraq and the loss of seven astronauts aboard space shuttle Columbia, Punxsutawney became a place for people to escape the harsh realities of life and, instead, focus on a groundhog named Phil.
About 40,000 people gathered on Gobbler’s Knob at sunrise Sunday and listened to the national anthem, while flags were lowered to half-staff in memory of the astronauts who died Saturday.
Then Phil’s handlers pulled him from his stump and the woodchuck saw his shadow, signaling six more weeks of winter.
Kathleen Perdy, a fifth grade teacher from Alliance, Ohio, tried to stay positive on her 50th birthday while enduring 33-degree temperatures. Her 26-year-old son had been deployed to the Middle East from his station in Texas on Saturday.
“Life goes on. You learn you have to value your time, and you have to respect each other. Most importantly, you have to have fun,” she said.
Natalie Chartier, 25, of Bellingham, Wash., was also marking a birthday at the site, that of friend Kate McGee, who turned 26.
“We all saw the news. It kind of dampened the first leg of the journey. Now we’re focused on Phil,” said Chartier, who made the trip from McGee’s home in Voorhees, N.J.
Legend has it that Phil comes out of his stump every Feb. 2 to predict the duration of winter. If he sees his shadow — as he nearly always has in the event’s 117-year history — winter is supposed to hang around for six more weeks. If not, it’s a sign of early spring.
Given the wintery weather much of the nation has put up with already, many weren’t surprised by Phil’s prognostication. Groundhog Day organizers said six inches of snow was cleared off nine acres at the Knob in advance of the woodchuck’s forecast.
“Phil didn’t have much of a job. It was an easy call today,” said Cindy Schultheiss, 48, of Chambersburg, who arrived at 4 a.m. for her first Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney.
Organizers attributed the record crowd in part to the fact the event fell on a weekend. Attendance has ballooned so much since the movie “Groundhog Day” was released in 1993 — and gained a cult following among the college crowd — that shuttle buses are now used to bring visitors up to Gobbler’s Knob.
“I love it. I actually came here because of Bill Murray,” said musician James Lee Stanley, 56. “Are you kidding? You have to do this once.”
Police were out in force as Gov. Ed Rendell became the first Pennsylvania governor to attend the Feb. 2 event. But the crowd remained tame since drinking is banned on the Knob. A family section that was set up near Phil’s stump to protect children simply became a place to accommodate the overflow of people.
“You don’t have to worry about the kids getting hit in the head with beer bottles,” said Phil Keller, 46, a retired police officer from Lebanon, who was taking in the scene Sunday with his family.
Rather than fight the crowd for lodging, Jeff Hansen, 54, of Hollywood Beach, Fla., bought a three-bedroom house in Punxsutawney for $43,000 four years ago and has been visiting on Groundhog Day ever since.
“I always wanted to live on Park Avenue. I just didn’t know it’d be in Punxsutawney,” Hansen said.
Overall, the atmosphere in the unofficial weather capital of the world remained upbeat throughout the weekend.
Barbara Conroy said when she wanted an idea for a romantic weekend with her husband of 15 years, Bob, all she had to do was look at Feb. 2 on the calendar.
“I thought, ’What a great idea for Valentine’s.’ It’s something neither one of us has ever done before,” said Conroy, 52, of Hollywood, Fla. “Why not fall in love with a groundhog?”
During the Groundhog Banquet on Saturday night, a moment of silence was held for the astronauts. Rendell said it was important to have fun amid life’s unexpected tragedies.
Many agreed. While they kept their radio on for Columbia news, Will Collins and Jenny Morrison, both 23, drove seven hours from Long Island, N.Y. to see Phil. Between hiking up to the Knob and grabbing a beer at the nearest bar, the couple were intent on partying.
“I wanted to come and do this so I can say I did it once,” Collins said.

By Rick