Groundhog Day comes to D.C., courtesy of a stuffed beast called Potomac Phil

Columnist February 2, 2014

People began gathering at Dupont Circle about 7 a.m. Sunday: men (and women) in top hats, a pair of accordionists playing polkas, people clutching signs that read “When Will Winter End?”

Potomac Phil surveyed it all with a gimlet eye.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Well, a glass eye. Two of them.

Potomac Phil — Washington’s answer to the famed Punxsutawney Phil — is a stuffed groundhog. He stood erect on a wooden board decorated with cornstalks, a flaking cob clutched in his stiff little paws.

“Potomac Phil is currently taxidermied,” said Aaron DeNu, organizer of the Groundhog Day celebration. “In Pennsylvania, they say that Punxsutawney Phil is kept alive by a magic elixir. We’re looking to get that magic elixir for Potomac Phil.”

Aaron heads up Dupont Festival, a nonprofit organization that in warmer months screens movies at the circle, hosts plays and concerts and sponsors chess tournaments. Three years ago, seeing a vacuum in the District’s groundhog-related festivities, Aaron launched this event.

By 7:30, the sun was shining in the cloudless sky. It was obvious which way this was going to go, shadow-wise, but everyone was awaiting the official proclamation.

“I don’t like cold without snow,” said Ben Trajtenberg, a procurement officer, as he waited with Zach Williams, both dressed in sober black coats and souvenir-shop Lincoln stovepipes.

“It’s just been too brutal this winter,” said Zach, a lawyer.

“Twelve years I’ve been in D.C., and this is the coldest winter I’ve seen,” said Ben.

The accordion players — Silvia Eberly of Arlington County and Michael Leggett Jr. of Waldorf — were reeling off jaunty tunes, including one that Silvia wrote especially for the occasion.

It’s Po-to-mac Phil!” go the lyrics of “The Potomac Phil Polka.”

Joggers slowed, ran in place, then joined the growing crowd. Parents rolled up with strollers. Dogs pulled at leashes, wanting to check out the big, stuffed squirrel. Pete Ross worked the crowd. “Are you a registered D.C. voter?” he asked, handing out literature for his shadow senator race.

And then a little after 8 a.m., Henrique Ozur Bass, cantor from Congregation Har Shalom, delivered the groundhog blessing.

“Hallowed woodchuck,” he said, “if, in truth, ye appoint the end of winter, then gaze upon thy shadow and thou wilt see it upon the hill as if thine own countenance.”

I’m pretty sure that’s the opposite of how it works, but the entire blessing sounded really nice. “Our days on earth are but a shadow,” the cantor noted.

Worthy citizens — including D.C. Council members Jack Evans and Muriel Bowser — crowded around Potomac Phil, waiting for his prognostication.

After a few pregnant seconds, Evans delivered the verdict: “Six more weeks of winter!”

A groan from the crowd.

“And six more months of political gridlock.”

Another moan.

Potomac Phil was curiously unmoved by the disappointment he had caused. Where, I wondered, had he come from?

Miss Pixie’s on 14th Street,” organizer Aaron said. “The store has a lot of beautiful art and furniture.”

That might explain why it was all too happy to unload Potomac Phil.

And what happens to him now?

“He’ll probably go to the Mansion on O Street,” Aaron said. “They’re having a Groundhog Day brunch. He might go to the Dupont Circle Hotel. My wife told me we couldn’t keep him too much at our place.”

Journalism 101

Any encounter with multiple teenagers that you can walk away from has to count as a success. So I’m happy that I emerged from a day back at Rockville High School unscathed. I was there on Friday, speaking to four journalism classes.

They were respectful and curious. A third to a half of each class said they read The Washington Post regularly, either online or in print. (TV news didn’t fare nearly as well.) They get a lot of news from Twitter, they said. But not Facebook. The teens confirmed what I’ve read: Since their parents have colonized Facebook, they have no great desire to be there.

Like a lot of newspapers, Rockville’s Rampage is always scrambling for money. It raises funds with a 5K race and an entertainment event called Ram Idol. (The school’s mascot is the ram.)

In my day, we had something called Donkey Basketball. The Rampage rented donkeys from some donkey-rental agency and held a teachers-vs.-students donkey-mounted basketball game in the gym.

There was something great about seeing your Algebra I teacher lurching across the hardwood atop a donkey. And then he would relieve himself all over the floor. (The donkey, not the teacher.)

I’m pretty sure PETA protesters would be out in force today. Probably the NEA, too.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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