Phil, the Sadness Beneath the Fur – A One-on-One Interview

Carrying the weight of the world’s weather concerns on your tiny furry shoulders can be a terrible burden, but mixed with the strain is the knowledge that you are looked to by half the world for word on whether spring is just around the corner.

Here, in an exclusive interview conducted two decades ago is a look at a side of the world’s most famous weather forecaster which the world has never seen before…

Phil, the Groundhog, up close and personal.

Every February 2nd the media flock to the small west-central Pennsylvania community of Punxsutawney to learn what the weather will be like for the next six weeks.

Being immortal, for nearly 104 years Phil has personally been honing his Delphic propensities, perfecting his craft, and constantly striving to improve the reliability of weather predictions until, today, Phil has reached the peak of his profession and is every bit as reliable as the NOAA.

All the public normally sees of the hairy, hardworking weather-rodent Phil is the half hour he spends in front of the klieg lights on that cold February morning each year; few if any are privileged to see the amount of preparation which goes into making each year’s prediction.

This year, in an exclusive interview with the meteorological marmot, this reporter visits his home and probes his professional life, following Phil from his palatial home at the center of town life on his estate which he graciously opens to the public who use it as a town park, to the moment he leaves on his yearly journey into the media spotlight.

Unlike many celebrities, Phil and his family are not the recluses one might expect; instead, they are always ready to greet both townspeople and visitors alike from the picture window in the side of their home.

Although his actual quarters are kept very rustic in order that Phil can remain in touch with his bucolic nature, an environment so important to maintaining the correct mindset essential to his success in predicting the whims of Mother Nature, the rest of the building houses his 10,000-volume library which he permits the local citizens to use.

But, as if to remind us that every celebrity must live in fear of the crazy element that can run the gamut from souvenir-seeking fans to crazed assassins, adjacent to and actually connected to Phil’s home/library is a fully staffed police station manned 24 hours a day.

With a foresight that can only be applauded by those who depend on Phil’s vital services, the town has even built an entire fire department adjacent to Phil’s residence where his fellow citizens stand prepared to leap into action to protect this most valuable and celebrated member of the community.

The shopping plaza near Phil’s residence for his shopping convenience.

As I approach Phil’s home from the adjacent Barclay Sq. park, near the area’s (then) largest shopping complex, Groundhog Plaza, this reporter is first struck by the elegant but understated entrance to the weather shrine.

Immortal Phil portrayed in bronze.
Immortal Phil as portrayed in bronze.

Although there are no large, glaring signs indicating that this outwardly utilitarian structure houses the world’s greatest four- legged weather mystic, the entry is graced by a simple but effective life-sized bronze statue of Phil himself, one paid for by a group of local believers in the town itself and erected in 1977 in recognition of his long and faithful service. (Today there is also a 6-ft fiberglass statue.)

A more recent sculpture put in place a decade after this interview took place.
A more recent sculpture put in place a decade after this interview took place.

As Phil welcomed me to his residence, there was an unmistakable air of tragedy about this very reserved celebrity and, although he declined to discuss his private concerns, I was well aware that only a few miles away his fellow groundhogs were considered little more than vermin to be aggressively sought and destroyed by local farmers and gardeners.

A note of even more personal tragedy entered prognosticating Phil’s life when, his first wife, Phyllis, died in 1978. This sense of tragedy is only emphasized because Phil himself, being the anointed “SEER of SEERS,” is immortal.

Phil’s entire family was present, and I suppose I should take a few words to say something about the apparently happy marriage of Phil and second wife Philomena, which was performed at a ceremony, one actually presided over by a sitting (actually standing for the ceremony) county judge.

This was an arranged marriage, with Philomena coming from a well-known city in the extreme southeastern corner of the state.

Although Philomena came from a much more sophisticated environment in Philadelphia, she was both gracious and open, dressed only in her inexpensive fur coat for our interview.

Also in residence with Phil and Philomena is their cousin, Barney.

As I was locked into the building for the night’s vigil, Phil was quiet but intense in his concentration, preparing for his dawn appearance at Gobbler’s Knob high in the hills overlooking the quiet town of Punxsutawney.

Contrary to dastardly claims put forward by some yellow journalists and repeated in some muckraking supermarket tabloids, Phil does not make any advance decision; placing his hand on an autographed volume of “The Wind and The Willows, Toad of Toad Hall,” he told me that his prediction is made precisely at the instant when he stands forth on the Knob.

As a part of his preparation, Phil sleeps from September to February, gathering his energy for the remarkable effort involved in making his most accurate prediction.

Despite the comfortable surroundings in this modern home which was built for him by grateful citizens in 1973-4, I remarked on the absence of any modern entertainment devices.

Phil pointed out that this was for two reasons; first, the presence of electronics would disturb his carefully maintained closeness to nature, and, second, Phil apparently lives in dread of seeing or hearing weather predictions on TV or radio – thus, this is one marmot family which will never watch James Herriott’s “All Things Great and Small,” CNN, or even Willard Scott’s smiling face.

As we settled down for the evening, Phil dined lightly on the wilted lettuce bouquet I brought for Philomena while the rest of his family discreetly chowed down on the kibble supplied by Phil’s trainer and (then) official handler, Bud Dunkel.

Bud, who is generally known as “The Keeper of the Groundhog,” is in reality Phil’s caterer, delivering fresh vegetables and sunflower seeds to supplement Phil, Philomena, and cousin Barney’s regular Eukanuba diet.

Although I had intended to sit up with Phil all night on his lonely vigil, I must have drifted off to sleep because, the next thing I knew, Jim Means, (then) President of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, along with Phil’s personal trainer, Bud Dunkel, had already arrived dressed in top-hated formal wear, ready to escort Phil to his morning appearance before the world’s media and adoring throngs.

This is where my part of the story ends, leaving the actual reporting of Phil’s brief appearance in the glare of publicity to the gaggle of reporters awaiting him on that cold hilltop or destiny.

Me? I am heading for a hot breakfast – the Salvation Army puts on a nice all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast. I’ll be stuffed before the throng returns to what is temporarily a nearly deserted town.

Although I had politely shared some of Phil’s dry kibble, it just wasn’t filling.

I plan to spend most of the rest of the day watching over my snow-covered garden plot awaiting any of Phil’s distant relatives who might stick their heads out on their day.

But I expect to put my varmint rifle down long enough to attend some of the day’s festivities in nearby Punxsutawney; in particular I want to see the Oreo Cookie Stacking Contest and the naming of the Punxsutawney Ambassadors.

Copyright 1991, John A. McCormick, Inc.

This faux “interview” with Punxsutawney Phil was written and first published in 1991. It is copyrighted.