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Groundhog Day was serious stuff back home in the Midwest

January 28, 2011

In the little town where I come from, we took Groundhog Day seriously.

It was entirely frivolous and silly, and mostly it was a Shirk thing, but it eventually grew into a town thing.
The town is Oelwein, Iowa. It is a burg of about 7,000 souls, situated in the northern part of the state.

There is nothing to stop the brutal arctic wind that howls down from Canada. By Feb. 2, we all needed a break and at least a good laugh, if not a trip to the Caribbean.

Eventually, we had Groundhog Day parties, and for a few years, we had the Annual Groundhog Day Parade, with the high school marching band.

The parade marshal was always my Dad, Richard O. Shirk. He was blessed with a fine sense of humor, and some might say he was the Town Character.

He was the one who started the zaniness, and each year, one of the area television stations would send a crew over to our town to get three or four minutes of parade action and an interview with R.O.

The newspapers showed up, too, Like the Waterloo Courier and the Dubuque Herald or the Cedar Rapids Gazette

It was big time.

This insanity began on account of his writing a regular newsletter for the local Rotary Club. Since our little town’s Rotary produced very little news, he used to fill the newsletter with little jokes and bon mots.

Along about January, he’d begin to inform his fellow Rotarians of what news there was from Punxatawney, Pa., home to the holy of holies, Punxatawney Phil.

It got to be that the Rotarians looked forward to his missives, and they often greeted him by saying things such as “Hey, Dick, what’s it look like for this year?”

“Looks like high pressure moving in over central Pennsylvania. I’d bet on six more weeks.”

At some point in the ’70s, his wife commissioned the creation of a full-length (!) groundhog suit, which never really looked much like a groundhog, but everybody got the idea.

When the Groundhog Day parade started, he always rode on a float, and always wore The Suit.

After he died, my late twin brother, in South St. Paul, Minn. inherited The Suit. Having already inherited old R.O.’s sense of humor, he began his own tradition.

Each Feb 2, before dawn, he stood in front of his family’s house (they lived on a busy street), and greeted the commuters by shouting “Happy Groundhog Day!”

It used to drive his wife and son nuts, but what the heck.

One day a large package arrived at my door, postmarked South St. Paul.

Yep, you got it.

–George Shirk
Mammoth Times Senior Writer

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