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Out of the Shadows

A stuffed groundhog and his handler are ready for their day in the sun

By Mike Gluck

On Feb. 2, 1983, UB geology staffer Dave Borden brought two things to work: a barbecue grill and a mounted groundhog. Borden dug a hole outside, propped up the groundhog (later to be named Ridge Lea Larry) and fired up the grill. And so a tradition was born: the UB geology department’s annual Groundhog Day cookout, where faculty, students and staff come together to eat hot dogs, check out old photos and—most importantly—see if Larry is going to see his shadow, predicting six more weeks of winter.

What’s in a name?
Larry’s name was inspired by UB’s former Ridge Lea Campus (on Ridge Lea Road off Bailey), the location of the geology department from 1975 to 1994. “We were kind of isolated over there,” says Borden. “There wasn’t much going on.” The Groundhog Day celebration gave people an excuse for a party in the middle of winter. After geology moved to the North Campus, a contest to rename Larry was held, but tradition won by a landslide and his name remained the same.

How it all began
Ridge Lea Larry likely passed away around 1980. Borden borrowed him from a taxidermist who had preserved him for a client. “That guy never came back, so the taxidermist said, ‘Give me 25 bucks and you can have it,’” says Borden. Because Ridge Lea Larry is stuffed (unlike Punxsutawney Phil, Dunkirk Dave and other celebrity groundhogs), Borden usually makes a hole for Larry in the snow, then throws some dirt on it, “to make it look like he just crawled out.”

A ritual with pagan roots
The tradition has been traced to an ancient pagan celebration called Imbolc that fell midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and revolved around fertility and weather divination. Some elements of the pagan tradition were later adopted into the Christian holiday of Candlemas Day, including observing a hedgehog or badger to determine how much longer winter would last. When European settlers brought the tradition to North America, the more prevalent groundhog took on the role of diviner.

So happy together
Borden keeps Larry on top of his refrigerator at his home in Alden, N.Y. “A long time ago, I used to take him to different places just to take pictures,” including out on a boat near Borden’s cabin in the Adirondacks. But today, Larry (who, after three decades of service, has lost all four of his teeth) seems content to chill out at home with Borden, who spent 24 years working for the geology department as an instructional support technician, and another six with the Research Foundation, before retiring in 2004.

Highlights from the 2015 Cookout

Though Borden is retired from UB, he and Larry still make the annual trek to campus for Groundhog Day. Larry did not see his shadow this year, portending an early spring. (At press time—buried under snow—that was hard to imagine.)