Groundhog Day 2014 Special Coverage: Living the Dream in Punxsutawney
Groundhog Day 2014 Special Coverage: Living the Dream in Punxsutawney
An Epoch Times staff member explores his family connection to Groundhog Day

An all-time favorite, back by popular demand. Originally published, Feb. 11, 2010.

PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa.—Ever since my first year of university, when the movie “Groundhog Day” opened to critical acclaim and what would later become a cult following, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with the film. The concept captured my imagination: living a day over and over again until I (or Bill Murray of all people) got it right. Believers of various religions have since taken it as means to explain their philosophies, and at least one university professor has used it as a primer for teaching the concepts of reincarnation.

In 1993, I never imagined I’d make it to Punxsutawney one day. As fate would have it, over a decade later, with the Internet having become a staple in mine and many others’ lives, I periodically found myself Googling my last name. The search results similarly caught my attention: I had stumbled upon an Ed Jekielek, described as the ‘storm chaser’ of the Inner Circle of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. He was one of the keepers of a 120-something-year-old-groundhog.

Some more years passed before I entered the Facebook fray, and found more Jekieleks. Contacting one of them, a young woman named Kristin, she insisted we must be related, as I looked a lot like an uncle of hers, and her grandfather Ed. Ed turned out to be Jekielek the storm chaser’s father. So with my wife and I making our way to New York City last year, and Groundhog Day 2010 approaching, it occurred to me that I was in driving distance of a what looked like a very interesting proposition. A few e-mails and phone calls later, aided by some remarkable Jekielek openness and hospitality, I had a place to stay, and VIP access to the world of the Inner Circle. Within hours of arriving in Punxsutawney on Feb. 1, I had met most of those local civic leaders who work year-in, year-out to bring Groundhog Day to fruition.

HOG WAITING: A crowd of an estimated 15,000 awaits Punxsutawny Phil's emergence at Gobbler's Knob. (Jan Jekielek/The Epoch Times)
HOG WAITING: A crowd of an estimated 15,000 awaits Punxsutawny Phil’s emergence at Gobbler’s Knob. (Jan Jekielek/The Epoch Times)

“Here we realize people’s dreams,” said a top hat and tuxedo-clad Ed Jekielek with a glint in his eye. Earlier a woman who insisted he sign her Groundhog Day program confessed to me that she had been watching Phil come out of his burrow for 20 years. Now that the kids had gone to college, she decided to live her dream and see him live, coming in from Rhode Island for a multi-day visit. Many, many similar stories were shared among people I asked. Multiple people told me that coming to Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day was on their “bucket list,” yet another reference to a well-known film.

Stephen Tobolowsky, who played the quirky character Ned in the Groundhog Day film, was this year’s guest of honor at the Groundhog Day banquet on Feb. 1, becoming an honorary member of the Inner Circle. With my access, I was able to spend considerable time with Stephen, who went above and beyond to satisfy my curiosities about the making of the film. According to him, Groundhog Day started out as a crass comedy flick where Phil Conners, Bill Murray’s character, realizes that being stuck in a looping day will allow him to do anything he wants, without consequences. The original script apparently ended with his suicide.

GROUNDHOG DAY: Stephen Tobolowsky prepares to do the whistling bellybutton trick of "Groundhog Day" movie-lore, in Punxsutawney, Pa., on Groundhog Day, Feb 2, 2010. (Jan Jekielek/The Epoch Times)
GROUNDHOG DAY: Stephen Tobolowsky prepares to do the whistling bellybutton trick of “Groundhog Day” movie-lore, in Punxsutawney, Pa., on Groundhog Day, Feb 2, 2010. (Jan Jekielek/The Epoch Times)

But along the way, said Stephen, over 30 percent of the script was rewritten, and he saw a project he was doing more “for the money” than anything else, become good, better, and then great. Director Harold Ramis, according to Stephen, at one point made it clear to his cast that the film takes place across a time period that a Buddhist might need to become enlightened: 10,000 years.

Ed, now retired from the forestry business he ran for 30 years, had some years prior delivered to Gobbler’s Knob (the site of the Groundhog’s Day event) the stump from which Punxsutawney Phil emerges yearly. A 13-year veteran of the Inner Circle, between his many events, he managed to find the time to speak about and introduce me to our relatives. In less than 24 hours we had developed a level of comfort with each other akin to knowing each other for years. Like family.

In our discussions, Stephen had observed that Groundhog Day, with all its silliness, has staying power. Indeed, the holiday has been around since 1887, and this year, the Groundhog Club Web site, groundhog.org, crashed while receiving millions of hits. This year, I had a chance to join the revelers and in my own unique way, live the dream.

Punxsutawney Travelers

PHIL-atron
PHIL-atron, animatronic Punxsutawney Phil. (Jan Jekielek/The Epoch Times)

Fred Ungar, York County, Pa., PHIL-atron’s keeper: “It’s about PETA protesting the use of the live groundhog. It’s a satire on PETA.” Last week, PETA wrote to the Punxsutawney Groundhog club, asking them to replace Phil with a robot.

Janet Mastronardi
Janet Mastronardi, Rhode Island (Jan Jekielek/The Epoch Times)

Janet watched Phil emerge from his burrow on TV for 20 years, and with her children now in college, she decided it was time to realize her dream. “I said to [my family], ‘One day mom would like to see Phil in person.’ I’m so excited to be here.”

Charles Lim from New York City
Charles Lim from New York City. (Jan Jekielek/Epoch Times)

“Ever since I’ve seen Groundhog Day, I wanted to come down. Everyone has been very nice here. So we’ve been loving it. We came here last night; saw the movie [again] at the theater last night.”

  • AskandTell

    I love this article about one of my top 10 movies; thank you Jan.

    From The Nation article of March 2013 Reliving Groundhog Day:

    “Phil learns contentment, and he learns forgiveness, and he learns kindness. He sits in the Punxsutawney diner, happily reading, but he’s not just reading, he’s radiating Buddha-nature. It’s all expressed in the trajectory of his relationship with Rita. He wants her, he tries to seduce her-first with meanness, then by fraud, then with recitations of French poetry and engineering perfect moments, It is only when he gives up, when he accepts the blessing of her company, free from desire-at which point she, too, magically becomes a far more interesting character-that she is delivered into his arms. Oh, it deepens with every encounter, this movie.”

    • Winky Cat

      Hi Ask! I never saw the movie, but as a resident of PA, I am very aware of “Phil”. (And “Gus, PA’s second most famous groundhog”, who until recently was the PA Lottery Mascot. He was retired about a year ago. Poor thing was probably fired by PA’s toad of a governor, Corbett, as a cost cutting measure!)

      • AskandTell

        Hi Wink. Wouldn’t be surprised if Corbett fired poor Gus.

        • http://www.TheEpochTimes.com/ Jan Jekielek

          That’s fine, but we have to be honest here. Gus was an impostor.

      • Gin1234

        Or passed on from the effects of fracking, that Corbett loves so much. :)

        • Winky Cat

          True that Gin!

    • http://www.TheEpochTimes.com/ Jan Jekielek

      There are so many things about that film! What I perhaps liked best about it is it sent the message that Phil had to overcome his objectification of Rita (and indeed women in general, alongside a host of other issues) to move on from the looped day. Keep in mind this was filmed at a time where the “victory” for the male protagonist was signified by bedding the girl—and even today we haven’t made all that much progress from that! I prefer to see much more nuanced relationships.

  • AskandTell

    The name of the town sure is a mouthful..Punxsutawney.

    • Gin1234

      It is. Most people around it, call it Punxy instead.

    • http://www.TheEpochTimes.com/ Jan Jekielek

      I’ve written it hundreds of time by now, and I still ask myself about the spelling!

  • Gin1234

    (I would love to know what about this comment put it into moderation and made it disappear when I first posted it, but I doubt I ever will)

    • Winky Cat

      HAHA! I’ve had the same thing happen. Someone said if you “refresh” they come back.

      I’m on the SE side of the state, so I doubt I will ever see “Phil”. Plus, traipsing around in the middle of the night, in the cold to see a grumpy groundhog, just isn’t something I see myself doing willingly.

      Did you get to see the giant rubber ducky while it was in Pittsburgh? I wish he had come to the eastern side of the state too. :-(

      • http://www.TheEpochTimes.com/ Jan Jekielek

        Winky, it was quite amazing to see how many people were there, from all corners of the world, some who had literally been planning for decades to make the trip. It has a very ‘homegrown’ feel to it—Phil is not ‘sponsored by this or that multinational’ which lends to the charm of the whole thing. If I recal it was raining in the morning … and most folks stood their ground.

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