They can't get their Phil of Groundhog Day


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They begin their official countdown to Groundhog Day nearly a month in advance.

On Jan. 8, Anthony Skariot glues the first little brown puff ball to a piece of paper with an outline of a groundhog -- "kind of like Santa's beard," he said -- and for the next 25 days, he and his wife Deana Carpenter add one puff ball to the paper each day. A fluffy groundhog face will appear on their countdown calendar by the time Punxsutawney Phil is ready to emerge from his burrow.

Groundhog Day, in this household, is not just on Feb. 2. It's all year round.

Now, though, with the most famous resident of Punxsutawney set to give his annual prognostication on Saturday, the couple's public display of Phil devotion is at its peak.

Large plywood letters, covered in tinsel and outlined by Christmas lights, spell P-H-I-L in the front yard of their Castle Shannon home. A wood carving of Phil sits on their porch. Signs promoting the weather-forecasting rodent are posted to their windows.

Inside, there is more para-phil-nalia, including a Christmas tree decorated with tiny groundhog hand puppets, tiny stuffed toy groundhogs and even a framed print of a painting by Phil himself, done in peanut butter and jelly.

"It's like, at a point where I'm running out of souvenirs to buy up there," Ms. Carpenter said.

Mr. Skariot and Ms. Carpenter, both 31, are avid holiday decorators, especially for Christmas and Halloween, but the February holiday reigns supreme.

"Groundhog Day is the big one," Mr. Skariot said.

Their fascination with Phil goes back to a chance visit by Mr. Skariot to Punxsutawney a decade ago.

It was the night before Groundhog Day in 2003, and Mr. Skariot, a student at Slippery Rock University, was driving back with a friend after covering a basketball game for a college radio show. They drove near the small Pennsylvania town and decided to spend the night so they could witness the next morning's festivities.

It was another four years before Mr. Skariot, who works for a mortgage servicing company, made it back to Punxsutawney, usually a two-hour drive northeast of Pittsburgh. He told Ms. Carpenter, a freelance reporter, it would be a big party.

"I wanted to go," she said. "I was excited. I thought it would be cool."

Six years have passed and they're going again.

"I wanted to go every year after that," Ms. Carpenter said. "I just like it. I look forward to it every year. I count down the days."

They drive up the day before so they can take their place at Gobbler's Knob at 3 a.m. There, they stand in the invariably freezing cold morning as they wait to see whether the groundhog sees his shadow. Phil, the legend has it, has been predicting whether there will be six more weeks of winter for more than 100 years, with his forecasts revealed only to the members of a secret society of men known as the Inner Circle.

The couple began celebrating Groundhog Day on a year-round basis a few years ago, when they formed the Outer Circle. It's the Pittsburgh chapter of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, one of about 50 chapters of people dedicated to supporting the groundhog legend.

"It's just a fan club for Phil, to kind of promote Groundhog Day," Ms. Carpenter said.

They started the club in 2010, recruiting about 20 family and friends and coworkers mostly based in the South Hills who pay $15 in dues ever year that allow them to attend Punxsutawney events scheduled around the ceremony.

The club has a website -- www.theoutercirclegroundhogclub.com -- and an orientation toward service events. For three years, Mr. Skariot and Ms. Carpenter have raised money and collected toys in Phil's name that they donate to organizations around Pittsburgh. They hold a picnic in August to raise money for the Washington Area Humane Society, and last year, they held a spaghetti dinner fundraiser for South Hills Interfaith Ministries and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Phil -- in the flesh -- came to that one. But he wasn't in good form.

"He wasn't all that happy after being cooped up in his thing all day," Mr. Skariot said.

Although they hold their groundhog-related events around Pittsburgh, to really experience Phil, they have to go to Punxsutawney. They travel there in September for Phil Phest, a festival where Phil -- supposedly a few decades past the centenarian mark -- drinks from the elixir of life.

And, of course, they are there in February.

They stay at a hotel several miles outside of Punxsutawney for the night before Groundhog Day and the night after the morning's festivities. A few times, Mr. Skariot has dressed up as a member of the Inner Circle, complete with top hat and long black coat. Someone asked for his autograph one year.

This year, five members of the Outer Circle will visit Punxsutawney, including their friend Lisa Carney of South Fayette. They will go to a members-only reception Friday, where they can mingle with Phil and members of the Inner Circle, and then will go to a banquet that evening.

Saturday morning, they'll brave the cold with thousands of other people, waiting for Phil to have his meteorological moment. It's usually cold -- one year temperatures were in the low teens --but it's never been too cold for them, they said.

Both think that Phil will see his shadow, predicting six more weeks of winter weather. But no matter what he forecasts, the Outer Circle agrees with the Inner Circle's standard line: Phil is always right.

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This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To subscribe: http://press.post-gazette.com/ Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.


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