40th prognostication: 6 more weeks of winter

For the 40th year, Dunkirk Dave, with the help of his friends Bob Will and Bill Verge, made a local Groundhog Day prognostication. This year, the verdict was six more weeks of winter weather.

The reaction from those attending the event held on Farmlane Drive in Dunkirk on Thursday morning was mixed. Some groaned while others cheered.

Handler Will was philosophical about the prediction. “He wants to go back inside and that means six more weeks of winter weather. Sorry,” he said.

“The weather we’ve had so far hasn’t been bad, so six more isn’t that bad,” he added.

Eight-year-old Lillian Zappie, who goes to school in Brocton, was fine with the prediction.

“I wanted it to be six more weeks  of winter,”  she said.

No fair-weather friend, Lillian is a devoted Dunkirk Dave fan.  She and her dad have been coming to see the predictions for six years. As such, she has been through a variety of conditions.

This year, her 5-year-old brother Anthony also attended. Lillian, wearing a groundhog headband for the event, clearly loves  groundhogs. She gave Will an envelope with some money to help support Dunkirk Dave. Will and Verge were touched by her thoughtful gesture.

Because groundhogs in captivity can live about 15 years, it stands to reason that a series of animals have played the role of Dunkirk Dave over the 40 years. Some folks may remember Sidewinder, the “animal superstar” whose story was told in a National Geographic kids’ book by Aline Alexander Newman released in 2013. According to Verge, “Sidewinder is hibernating this year.”

Instead,  a three-year-old animal made the prediction. Will chose it because it seemed to be calm, but he wanted to give the animal plenty of space for its debut.

He requested that spectators move back before Verge brought the animal out before the lights and cameras. The groundhog seemed to enjoy the antique dollhouse where it was placed; so much so that Will had a difficult time coaxing it out.

Eventually, Dunkirk Dave accepted some pumpkin pie from Portage Pie in Westfield, a piece of cantaloupe and then picked up a carrot. Then it was back inside the dollhouse and finally his cage back inside the house on Farmlane Drive.

Will and Verge both handle the groundhogs without the gloves favored at other groundhog events.

“I haven’t been bitten in the 40 years I’ve done this,” Will said. “But there’s always a first time.”

Will is a wildlife rehabilitator and he favors a gentle approach to handling the animals. In the first place, he uses animals that cannot be released to the wild. Secondly, he allows the groundhog to actually be on the ground, rather than grabbing it and exposing it to the crowd.

“The groundhog should be on the ground,” he said.

The local tradition dates back to 1967 when Will was working as a special education teacher for the Dunkirk school system. He noted each year he took a groundhog to visit his class and the janitor (Leonard Catalano) suggested he call the Dunkirk Evening OBSERVER. A reporter was sent down to do the story.

“It was the reporter who came up with the name Dunkirk Dave,” Will said. He and his groundhogs have celebrated Groundhog Day ever since.