Punxsutawney Phil’s Untimely Demise

My new book “Pass the Nuts” is now available. Here’s a sample from the book—taken from Chapter 29.

I’ve been fortunate to cover almost every major sporting event in this country except the Kentucky Derby, the Masters and Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Frankly, the Masters is not on my bucket list but Groundhog Day is, even though it’s not exactly a sporting event. Ever since the movie with Bill Murray, I’ve been intrigued.

“Then you know about the sad demise of Punxsutawney Phil,” said Mike Wagner, a realtor in Mayfield Heights, Ohio.


“Yes, he froze to death in 1970,” said Wagner. “Grave robbers stole his corpse.”

I was speaking at the Mayfield Chamber of Commerce luncheon and Wagner was there to introduce me, but this revelation suddenly dwarfed my prepared remarks. I was talking about my first book and discovering a chapter for my next book.

Wagner was a student at St. Francis College of Loretto, Pennsylvania, which is about an hour’s drive from Punxsutawney. He was the first to discover Punxsutawney’s dirty little secret.

“I believe it was Pete Sentren’s girlfriend who invited us to Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day in 1970. She lived near Punxsutawney. She said we could sleep in the basement of her parents’ home,” said Wagner.

So Wagner and half a dozen of his fraternity friends from St. Francis made the trip, arriving in late afternoon of Feb. 1. Groundhog Day was the next day, Feb. 2. It is one of the few major holidays celebrated on the same date every year, like the Fourth of July, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Among them was Mike Asselta, whose nickname was “Goody” because he was always looking for a good time. The boys went out partying, drinking, riding toboggans and then they slept in blankets on the floor of the Roberts’ basement, which was fine. They were college lads. Early the next morning they dragged themselves off the basement floor and drove to Gobbler’s Knob, where the ceremonies took place. The members of the prestigious Groundhog Society were dressed in their traditional top hats and morning suits. Phil was in his box with the tiny door.

“There were a couple of hundred people there,” Asselta recalls. “We were half hung over and it was cold. I bet it was zero degrees. The time came and they tapped on Phil’s box with a stick or a cane or something. He didn’t come out. They tapped again. He still didn’t come out. We’re all saying, ‘Get that sucker out. We came all the way from Loretto. We want to see the rodent.’ They tapped his box again. ‘He doesn’t want to come out. Six more weeks of winter,’ said the president of the Groundhog Society. Then they all left to get pancakes and bloody Marys at the Punxsutawney County Club. They just left Phil there.”

That was not the end of the story for the expeditionary force from St. Francis, however. They were young, they were out of town, they were adventurous and they were thirsty. And the Franciscan monks at St. Francis were a good hour away.

Mike Wagner worked the crowd at the pancake breakfast, making small talk with one morning suit guy after another.

“One of them confided his suspicion to me that Phil was dead, that he froze to death,” said Wagner, who passed the word to the others.

“So we went back to Gobbler’s Knob to see if he was still there,” said Asselta. “And there was Phil’s box, abandoned, alone, unguarded.”

Another of the Unholy St. Francis Seven, a chap named Steve Gill, looked into Phil’s box and found, exactly as advertised, one groundhog, frozen solid. Here was a case of morbid indifference, a felony, but nowhere on the Punxsutawney web site will you find any reference to the passing of Phil in 1970 or to the mysterious disappearance of his corpse.

“Steve Gill reached in and pulled him out,” said Asselta. “Steve had a big winter parka on. He put Phil in his pocket. Later that day we drove back to St. Francis. Steve put Phil in his freezer. He lived in a house off campus. We thought about getting Phil stuffed, but that was too expensive. So Steve left Phil in his freezer.”

Time passed. Winter turned to spring. Summer was just around the corner and so were finals.

“I had to give a speech for my final in Helen Carroll’s public speaking class,” recalled Ray Ward, another of the Seven. “The subject was local history.”

Ray approached Steve Gill.

“Steve,” said Ray, “do you still have that groundhog in your freezer?”

“Yeah, I do,” said Steve.

“Can I borrow him?” said Ray.

“You can keep him,” said Steve.

And so, on the morning of his final, Ray Ward picked up the frozen ground hog and brought him to class. Ward concealed the dead body behind the rostrum and he began his speech, ten minutes on the tragic and bizarre demise of the frozen Punxsutawney groundhog.

“The other students in my class thought I was doing a comedic presentation,” said Ward. “Helen Carroll was a native of the area and she was skeptical of us who were from eastern urban areas. I was from northern New Jersey. She thought I made the whole thing up. She questioned my validity and thought I was ridiculing local history. And then I held up the carcass and she was incredulous.”

Ray got an A in the class and returned the rodent to Steve Gill’s freezer. Shortly afterward Steve grew tired of the groundhog staring at him every time he opened the freezer to get a frozen pizza so he left Phil on the porch to defrost. When Phil began to ripen, he disappeared.

Steve Gill’s adventures took him to Alaska and most recently to Seattle. Ray Ward, who made such an impressive speech about a frozen rodent, lives in Morehead, North Carolina, and is a salesman for a company that—get this!—makes cold storage facilities and walk-in freezers. It is natural that you should wonder what attracted him to that business.

Mike Asselta, a retired schoolteacher from Fairport, New York, returns to the scene of the crime periodically. Because of the popularity of the movie, crowds of 30,000 now are typical on Groundhog Day at Punxsutawney. Parking is a mile away and you ride shuttle buses to Gobbler’s Knob.

“Come on up. I’ll show you around,” said Asselta, who seems unafraid of any pending legal action for abuse of a corpse.

“I was only a witness,” insisted Asselta, who claims protection from prosecution by the statute of limitations.

Bill Baker, another of the Unholy Seven, is now a lawyer and says the statue of limitations does not apply in this case.

“I understand there is a nice reward offered for your capture,” Baker emailed Asselta.

Frankly, I think the whole gang should be rounded up and forced to spend a night at Gobbler’s Knob in an unheated box.

Consider the ultimate irony of this sordid saga. St. Francis College is named after St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. He was an animal lover! That saintly man has been spinning in his grave for more than forty years. The Unholy Seven should have been expelled for desecrating the corpse.

Nevertheless, I might accept Asselta’s offer. But I won’t sleep in anybody’s basement.

Excerpted from the book Pass the Nuts, copyright © Dan Coughlin. All rights reserved.

This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.

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