GARNER — On a cold, sunny late Saturday morning in Garner, USA, hundreds of children and their parents gathered in front of a stage at White Deer Park on Aversboro Road.
The song “Home” by Season 11 American Idol Phillip Phillips poured reassuringly from the loudspeakers on the stage. Some parents tried to ward off the morning chill by sipping steaming hot chocolate from styrofoam cups.
The kids had spent the morning entertained by baton twirlers, hula hoopsters, the Chick-fil-A Cow, Smokey the Bear, McGruff the Crime Dog and an array of owls, snakes, turtles, a vulture, frogs and even a gecko or two.
Minutes before noon it was time for the day’s hit attraction.
Garner is the home of 2011 “American Idol” winner Scotty McCreery and Miss North Carolina 2012, Arlie Honeycutt, but Saturday was Groundhog Day and the moment belonged to Mortimer, a nearly 7-year-old groundhog who was going to let folks in Garner know – by way of his shadow – whether they were in for six more weeks of winter or whether spring was just around the corner.
Two of Mortimer’s colleagues in Raleigh and Charlotte would make headlines by early Saturday afternoon.
The Associated Press reported that the venerable Sir Walter Wally at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh saw his shadow about noon, predicting six more weeks of winter. The royal rodent Queen Charlotte at that city’s nature museum, meanwhile, didn’t see her shadow when she came out about 11:30 a.m., predicting an early spring.
A few Garner Groundhog Day celebrants were hoping for an early spring, especially with recent cold temperatures that brought to the Triangle a wintry mix of freezing rain and snow followed by harsh, bone-chilling winds.
Forrest Jones, Garner’s assistant public works director, was standing near park picnic tables with his youngest son, Aaron, while his wife, Heather, and their 4-year-old son Archie worked on a groundhog necklace fashioned from a paper plate, popsicle stick and yarn. Forrest Jones remembered that as a child he would beg for snow because he could stay out of school and romp through the stuff.
“I used to want to see snow, until I became responsible for clearing the roads up,” he said.
Jaxon Martinez, 9, wanted more cold weather.
“Snow all the way,” said his mother, Delores Martinez. “He’s been praying for snow.”
Celebration was in the cold morning air.
Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams, resplendently attired in a tuxedo and top hat, danced – well sort of moved around, actually – to the tune “Gangnam Style.”
“I can get down but sometimes I can’t get back up,” he said.
The Chick-fil-A cow led the Cha Cha slide in front of the stage. The bovine Bojangles had already won a dance contest earlier that morning.
“The cow got it going on,” Phillip “MC Matty” Matthews, a Wake County commissioner, said from an onstage microphone.
Still, the day belonged to Mortimer, who lives at Creative Learning About Wildlife Species (CLAWS), a wildlife rescue, rehabilitation and educational organization on Jo Mac Road in Chapel Hill. CLAWS executive director Kindra Mammone said Mortimer was donated to the group when he was just 8 weeks old.
“He was so cute,” Mammone said.
The cheerful little woodchuck has lived among people his entire life – and that’s a good thing because he’s often called upon to make appearances at events such as the one Saturday in Garner, along with regular visits to schools for educational purposes.
“He knows his job very well,” Mammone said.
It was just a minute or two before noon when someone carried Mortimer to the stage.
The mayor officially greeted the little fellow by kissing him atop the head.
“I kissed him one year and he bit me,” Williams said.
Mortimer busily chewed on an almond, but the mayor never told the crowd whether the woodchuck had seen his shadow. Instead, Williams produced a letter he claimed the woodchuck had written: “One more little cold snap but that’s all. Spring is on the way!”
Of shadowy governmental disclosures and a literary-minded groundhog: Who knew?