EARLY SPRING: Punxsutawney Phil predicts winter to be short
COLUMBIA CITY – Despite a very cold and snowy start to February in Northeast Indiana, the sage of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a morbidly obese groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil, emerged from his den Saturday morning, did not see his shadow and therefore proclaimed an early spring for the entire nation.Thus prophesied a Pennsy oracle woodchuck on the oddest of holidays: Groundhog Day.Below is a feature column penned by Zak Lantz, editor of The Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper, about the groundhog fame of his hometown.Punxsutawney -- this is my townFriday morning, while I was wiping the sleep out of my eyes -- after sleeping in knowing that I had a long day ahead of me -- there was already a song running through my head.As is often the case, it was a song that was rather randomly placed in my thoughts, but at the same time, it was also quite appropriate, given the date.February 1st -- Groundhog Eve as those of us who grew up in Punxsy have always known it. And on the eve of the world's most famous groundhog's most famous prediction, the song playing in my head as I was barely gaining consciousness was an old country tune I know and love -- Montgomery Gentry's "My Town.""My Town" is a ballad for and to the small town where the songwriter grew up, highlighting local monuments that make his town special -- a pale blue water tower, his uncle Bill, the old mill's lunch whistle, Sunday mornin' services at the Church of Christ and a girl named Jenny.Punxsy has more landmarks than I can count, highlighting reasons that travelers should make this town a destination on their "bucket lists," and all of that starts with Phil's burrow at Gobbler's Knob.But it's not just the landmarks on our maps that make this town one worth visiting every Groundhog Day -- or every day for that matter.This year, Groundhog Eve was a recognized holiday for the students in the school district with the holiday falling on a weekend. In a normal year, it would just be the holiday itself that was observed as a day off. But back when I was a youngster, we had to rise early to watch Phil's prognostication and then throw on our winter clothes and make the trek to school. Phil's day has certainly grown in importance, and while much of the credit deservedly goes to Phil himself, an awful lot of it can also be credited to the members of this community who make up "My Town."Groundhog Club President Bill Deeley? Sure, he looks great up there in that tuxedo and top hat, but I also remember him dressed in jeans and a hoodie training me to "hit your cutoff" as my Little League coach back when I was 9 years old.The Big Chill, Jason Grusky? Yeah, I certainly recognize him as a member of the Groundhog Club's Inner Circle -- and one with a beard I've always admired -- but he also tore through offensive lines as a member of Punxsy's football team, and so many people remember him in that regard as well.Ron Ploucha, John Griffiths, Bob Roberts ... These aren't just names to me, they're people I've known since I was a child. Every member of the circle has been an active member of the community.But each and every one of those members will also tell you that the legend of Groundhog Day lives on not only through their hard work and preparation, but through the planning of the folks who sit "behind the scenes."Working at the paper this year, I've seen the dedication that folks like Marlene Lellock and Katie Donald put in helping to make the most out of this beloved celebration.Even then, though, it doesn't stop there.All of the members of the Groundhog Club and the representatives of the Chamber of Commerce will also tell you that it goes far beyond their own hard work.You've heard it said that, "It takes a village to raise a child." Well, the same goes for raising a groundhog.From the time we are children, we hear the legend of Phil and his powerful prognostication. We endure the six weeks of winter when he deems it necessary, and we rejoice in his calls for an early spring.When we grow a bit older and go off to places like college, we put up with endless taunts: "Oh, you come from that town that worships the groundhog, huh?"To that question, and any other similar to it, I always had a two-fold rebuttal."First of all, we do not worship the groundhog. We admire and adore him for what he's done for our town. And secondly, I'm darn proud to call Punxsutawney my home."To put it more tersely, in the words of Montgomery Gentry, "This is my town."Punxsutawney's proudest feature is its population. But when I say population, I'm talking about quality, not quantity.The numbers will be what they are, but the people that make up the population will always be quality people -- the types of people who make it easy to say that I'm "Punxsy proud."Every year, on Groundhog Eve, the Man and Woman of the Year for the community are crowned, and to those who have been honored with that title, I tip my hat to you.But at the same time, the beautiful thing about Punxsy is that I don't have to look very far to see people who are doing great things. I see them when I'm walking the aisles of the grocery store, when I'm stopping to grab a cup of coffee before work and when I'm out on an assignment.Going back to the source, I'm almost positive that if I could understand Groundhogese, Phil himself would whisper in my ear this morning when he arises from his slumber, "Look at all these people, Zak. This is what it's all about. This is what makes this town what it is."Happy Groundhog Day, friends. Stay warm and enjoy yourselves.Zak Lantz was born and raised in Punxsutawney and is the editor of The Punxsutawney Spirit.