Kids visit with Punxsutawney Phil in the halls of Punxsutawney High School during a youth wrestling match on Saturday, Jan. 26, in Punxsutawney, Pa. "They really see that Phil's not actually a puppet, or just something they saw on television," said Groundhog Club Inner Circle member Ron Ploucha. "I get to see the looks on their faces with eyes as big as 50-cent pieces, it's my favorite part about being Phil's handler."
While Ploucha appreciates watching kids enjoy Phil, he sometimes gets a little apprehensive when Phil is around large groups of people. "I'm worried that somebody — even though I tell them not to — will come up and put their hands near Phil's face. Sometimes those fingers of theirs looks like carrots to him. It's never happened fortunately, but there can always be a first time, so I am very careful with having him out in the open around people."
Punxsutawney, Pa., is a town of approximately 6,300 people. A local hospital and schools serve as a backbone for community employment, according to the Punxsutawney Chamber of Commerce. In 2010, the unemployment rate was 6.6 percent. "Machining shops that work with heavy equipment and metals, as well as mining of coal and fracking of natural gas provide some higher paying jobs in the area, but are less plentiful," said Michele Neal, director of the Punxsutawney Chamber of Commerce.
Groundhog Club Inner Circle member Ron Ploucha, right, with co-handler John Griffiths, transports Punxsutawney Phil from a "Meet Phil" event at Punxsutawney High School on Jan. 26. Ploucha has been a member of the Inner Circle since 1997, and Griffiths has been a member since 1999.
The top-hat wearing Inner Circle members feed and take care of Phil and also travel with the prognosticating groundhog throughout Pennsylvania for various engagements. "He's been on television shows in New York City before, but we sometimes have problems with bringing him across state lines. Some states don't want Phil's type brought into their state, we have learned."
Ron Ploucha visits with Renee White and daughter Jolise at a “Meet Phil” event at Punxsutawney High School. Before retiring and volunteering full-time as Phil's handler, Ploucha was a math teacher at the school and White was one of his students.
The 15 current Inner Circle members and five living retired members include a lawyer, dentist, construction worker, chiropractor and coal company owner.
There's no manual for becoming a handler for the Seer of Seers. "We go through a very extensive training for this," said Ploucha jokingly. " It's a learn-as-you-go thing, and it takes time to get to know each other and develop trust (with Phil). Everybody smells and sounds different” Once members have proven themselves, they are set for life — there are no term limits within the Inner Circle.
Visitors look at Punxsutawney Phil inside his burrow at the library in Punxsutawney, Pa. As part of a project started by the Punxsutawney Chamber of Commerce, the first “Phantastic Phil” statue of its kind, greets visitors outside Phil's burrow.
"We saw public art projects in other small towns, and the Chamber of Commerce thought it would be neat to bring that here and incorporate Phil," said Michele Neal, director of the Punxsutawney Chamber of Commerce. "At first we planned for 24 statues around town, but were having difficulty getting small businesses to sponsor them," Neal said. Once the community saw visitors congregating for photos with the statue, many businesses and organizations wanted to take part.” Now there are 32 statues designed and produced by local artists.
Groundhog Club Inner Circle member Ron Ploucha pets Punxsutawney Phil while visiting him inside his burrow at the Punxsutawney Library on Sunday, Jan 27. "Phil's diet consists of various types of lettuce, iron-rich kale, celery and rabbit feed," explained Ploucha. "A special treat for Phil is a honey & oat granola bar. They are hard and crunchy which helps him keep his teeth healthy, sometimes we will even throw in a piece of wood for him to chew on."
The club also claims Phil drinks a mysterious elixir that has allowed him to live for 128 years. The average lifespan of a groundhog is seven years, according to the Groundhog Club, but because Phil drink's his special elixir ever year, he will live forever.
The Punxsutawney High School Chucks junior varsity basketball team huddles during a game against a local rival. "We're trying to learn how to bring our kids back to the area after they graduate,” said Michele Neal, director of the Punxsutawney Chamber of Commerce. We need to keep our community thriving with educated young people."
Joseph Henninger, coordinator of The Punxsutawney Groundhog Festival — a week-long event that occurs each summer — stands inside The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. The summer festival, in existence since 1966, promotes tourism to the area beyond Groundhog Day in early February.
"We love all things Groundhog," said Henninger. "Punxsutawney Phil and Groundhog Day are great for our town's struggling economy, and it even helps the other surrounding counties who provide lodging for the people that visit us on Feb. 2."
Butch Philliber, a 25-year-member of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club's Inner Circle, boards the Punxy Phil tour bus for a post 'Breakfast with Phil' drive while Alan Boynton, a visitor from Virginia Beach, Va., poses for a picture.
"Groundhog Club actually started in Punxy as a summer hunting outing for the community to come together," explains Philliber, who is the third generation Inner Circle member in his family. "We do not eat Punxsutawney Phil, but we have no problems with people who choose to eat his distant cousins."
"This is a happy holiday, it has nothing to do other than the legend of Punxsutawney Phil and his ability to predict the weather," said Philliber, likening Phil to Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.