CEE Alumnus Helps Punxsutawney Prep for Groundhog Day
An hour and a half from Pittsburgh, the town of Punxsutawney is busily preparing for a much-loved holiday. However, the enigmatic (and delightfully fuzzy) star of the festivities is lying low. Punxsutawney Phil, resident groundhog, has little on his calendar until February 2, when he’ll emerge from his burrow and let the country know when to expect spring. CEE alumnus Jason Grusky (CE ’95) is a member of Phil’s Inner Circle, a top-hatted group of local dignitaries in charge of planning the annual festivities and ensuring that Phil (who in the off-season lives in the town library with his “wife” Phyllis) stays content and well-fed. Recently, we spoke to Grusky about his time at CMU, his career, and the celebration in Punxsutawney.
CEE: In ’95, you earned a B.S. in Civil Engineering from Carnegie Mellon. Tell us about your experience in CEE.
Grusky: I had the typical busy CMU life, but maybe not for the typical reasons. In addition to studying engineering, I was a two-sport athlete and held a variety of on-campus jobs, including a two-year stint as one of Professor Larry Cartwright’s assistants. Looking back, I believe that what makes the CEE program so special is the faculty. As a teacher, it is easy to spot other teachers who are in education for the right reason – to help students. That’s what I remember most about my time in CEE: the faculty were really dedicated to helping their students.
CEE: Can you describe your path following graduation, and what you’re doing now?
Grusky: After graduation, I worked for six years as a civil engineer on a variety of projects, and geosynthetics became my niche. I enjoyed the work, but didn’t feel satisfied that I was leaving the lasting legacy I wanted. In 2001, I quit my job and hiked the entire 2,168 miles of the Appalachian Trail in the hopes of figuring out my life. It worked! Not only was it the experience of a lifetime, but along my journey I thought about the people who had had a big impact on my life, and the vast majority were my former teachers, coaches, and professors. I realized I wanted to be a teacher myself, and try to be that meaningful person that students would remember forever. I am now a math teacher and coach at my old alma mater, Punxsutawney High School... and I couldn’t be happier with my decision!
CEE: Tell us a bit about Punxsutawney Phil’s Inner Circle. How did you become a part of it?
Grusky: The Inner Circle was created in the early 1960's to oversee Groundhog Day and uphold its traditions. The signature top hats and tuxedos were adopted as a sign of nobility and a respectful sign to Phil, the King of all Groundhogs. The team traditionally has a teacher on the team to oversee activities with school districts worldwide, and when the previous teacher retired, he recommended me to the group. In 2011 I became one of the fifteen. Everyone in the Inner Circle has his own unique weather-related nickname, and I received the name “Big Chill” (I’m guessing since I am big and rather laid back).
This year, I started a new tradition of holding videoconferences with schools around the world in the days leading up to Groundhog Day. I’ve also been actively involved in expanding the library of free activities for teachers and students on our website.
CEE: Can you tell us a bit about Phil? How did he become the town's chief groundhog?
Grusky: There are many imitators around the world, but Punxsutawney Phil is the one and only true weather-predicting groundhog on the planet because he was the first. His first recorded prediction was in 1886, making this year’s prediction his 127th on record. A normal groundhog’s life span is six to eight years, but every summer Phil receives a magical elixir that gives him seven more years of life, so he’s at least 127 years old and is correct 100% of the time. (And as we say in the Inner Circle, believe everything we say because if you’re too concerned with the science, you’re missing the point!)
CEE: Take us through a typical Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney.
Grusky: The ceremony takes place at “Gobbler’s Knob”, a clearing in the woods about a mile outside of town. Phil comes out of his burrow about 7:25 a.m., but the gates open at two a.m. and the place is completely packed by six. For staying up most of the night and being nearly frozen, the crowd is fun and energetic. It’s something everyone should experience at least once. The highlight of the celebration, which runs from February 1st through 3rd, is that virtually everything is free and there’s something for everyone.
CEE: What's special about this year's Groundhog Day festivities?
Grusky: This year’s celebration falls on a Saturday, which typically draws our biggest crowds since people can enjoy the festivities without missing work. A typical crowd can reach 30,000 people when the big day falls on a weekend. For a town of 6,500, this is a tremendous boost to our local economy. Hotel rooms in the area are limited and fill up fast, so make your plans to attend as soon as possible!
For information about Punxsutawney’s Groundhog Day celebration, visit www.groundhog.org.
CEE alumnus Jason Grusky shares a moment with Punxsutawney Phil, celebrity groundhog.