CHARLESTON – How do you get a West Virginia Supreme Court justice to stand in frigid temperatures, broadcasting to a statewide audience as the sun rises on a cold February morning?
If it's Brent Benjamin, you put him in Punxsutawney, Pa., on Groundhog Day.
Benjamin did just that last week as he took in the annual festivities at Gobbler's Knob.
"It was a lot of fun," Benjamin said after returning to his Supreme Court office this week. "The people in Punxsutawney are warm and friendly. If it wasn't for the occasional Penn State jersey, you'd think you were in West Virginia."
Benjamin took in his first Groundhog Day festivities because both his daughter Laura and wife Janice attend Indiana University of Pennsylvania's culinary arts school that is located in Punxsutawney. His daughter is finishing her degree in nutrition and culinary arts, while his wife is in the middle of a yearlong certification in culinary arts.
"My wife thought so much of the school and its reputation that she decided to go back to school, too," Benjamin said. "And I'm proud to say they're both on the dean's list."
Anyway, Benjamin said he thought it was the perfect opportunity to witness Groundhog Day firsthand since he had a place to stay in Punxsutawney.
"It seemed like a natural since Groundhog Day was on a Friday this year and since they (his wife and daughter) already were up there," said Benjamin, who ended up doing a live remote on the statewide MetroNews TalkLine program with Hoppy Kercheval. "I was literally two feet away from Phil himself when I was talking with Hoppy. I interviewed his handler. It's just one of those lighter things that, I think, make for a good Friday radio show."
Benjamin said the entire scene was "not like anything I expected."
"On Feb. 1, it's all about getting things ready," he said. "There are dances, charity events. It's all family-oriented, and it's free. The culinary school put on a nice reception."
The next morning, he said people begin trekking up Gobbler's Knob on the south side of the village at about 3 a.m.
"Most people take buses, but several thousand walk up in the cold," he said. "Once there, there were about 20,000 people. It's a big party. Everybody is having a great time. There was lots of food, music, fireworks, bonfires."
At about 7 a.m., he said the Inner Circle of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club takes over.
"Then, it's a matter of pomp and circumstance," Benjamin said. "It's about as dignified as much as it can be with a groundhog."
He said the Inner Circle gathers around Phil's oak stump. Then, at about 7:20 a.m. when sun's just coming up, the president of the club knocks three times. Phil is roused up, and he's presented to the crowd. Then, Phil and the Inner Circle retreats into conference, where they speak Groundhogese about the pending prediction.
"Then they announce, again with great pomp, whether he sees his shadow," Benjamin said. "For the first time in 10 years, he did not see his shadow this year."
In 121 years, Phil has not seen his shadow 15 times. That means an early spring is coming.
"The people just really get into it," Benjamin said. "It's a great deal of fun."
After the big announcement, Benjamin said everybody goes back downtown and continues the party for the rest of the day.
"Then, it starts again the next day," he said. "But it was more subdued. I was amazed at the crowd that was there."
Benjamin said he talked to people from Germany, and saw license plates from several states, including Minnesota, New York and Kentucky.
So, what does Benjamin think of French Creek Freddie, West Virginia's own prognosticating groundhog?
"I wouldn't mind seeing French Creek Freddie," he said. "But going to Punxsutawney certainly was well worth it to see it and be a part of it. It was a lot of fun. And I'm certainly inclined to do it again."