A shivering crowd of thousands waits expectantly for an unlikely celebrity. Fifteen men in top hats and tuxedos stand ready as Punxsutawney Phil, the world-famous groundhog, emerges from his burrow each Feb. 2 to announce if we’ll have six more weeks of winter.
Groundhog Day is a whimsical, festive tradition for this town 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, and two of those top-hatted men — lifelong ‘Punxsy” residents Jeff Grube and Jason Grusky — are CMU engineering alumni.
“Phil’s Inner Circle,” is a tight-knit group, and members are invited in by existing members. The group oversees the event, which has been running since 1886. Up to 30,000 people visit the town of 6,000 for the picnics, contests and annual prediction.
At 3 a.m., local school buses begin shuttling people to Gobbler’s Knob, a clearing a mile outside of town. There, they enjoy a running stage show of music, fireworks, comedians and more.
“It’s just ‘crowd’ the whole way up the hill, into the trees, as far as you can see, jumping up and down, having a great time,” said Grube, a manufacturing business owner and 11-year Circle member.
Circle members work that crowd, chatting and posing for endless pictures. The crowd consists of longtime regulars, like the lawyer from New York or the jeweler and his wife from Kentucky. And then there are the contest winners from Spain and Tokyo, or the men who came on a whim from Australia.
At 7:20 a.m., Circle members gather and work their way through the crowd to the stage. Phil is retrieved from his burrow and they gather around the stump as the President interprets Phil’s message. He taps one of two scrolls and the forecast is announced.
And while Feb. 2 is the culmination, work goes on year-round.
As a CMU-trained electrical engineer, Grube maintains the website, groundhog.org. Grusky, a teacher and six-year member, coordinates the activities with schools.
Circle members divvy up and accompany Phil to functions — from parades and hockey games to helping Dick Vitale predict college basketball.
“It’s like a ticket to the best events,” said Grusky, who recalls throwing out the first pitch — with Phil — at a minor league baseball game.
“We get so many really interesting things to do,” Grube said.
Grube remembers chatting with the writer of the movie “Groundhog Day,” in preparation for the musical now bound for Broadway, and the old tale of how the original movie team brightened the script after participating in the real-life fun.
And the star himself?
“I actually think he’s a bit of a ham,” Grube said. “He’s like any celebrity. He comes alive for the crowd.”
Both men recall another story — Grube encouraging a young Grusky to attend CMU, telling him of his own great experience.
“I couldn’t turn down a school with that reputation,” said Grusky, who was a star running back and track and field performer for the Tartans. In 2011, he was named to the University Athletic Association’s 25th Anniversary team in each sport.
Both stay in touch with CMU professors and friends.
“I drive into Oakland,” said Grube, “and it’s still home.”
Photo: CMU alumni Jeff Grube and Jason Grusky with their intuitive friend