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Campus News

Hardy geologists turn out for annual Groundhog Day celebration


Published February 5, 2015

Snow? What snow?

The sky was silver and the temperature was in the teens, but a little winter storm couldn’t stop UB geologists from holding their annual Groundhog Day cookout on Monday.

These are, after all, people who are used to tough conditions. Jason Briner and Elizabeth Thomas, two faculty members who have worked in the Arctic, even brought their baby, Gus, who was looking dapper in a pale blue snowsuit and pumpkin hat.

The barbecue featured hot dogs, burgers, veggie patties and, of course, a visit from Ridge Lea Larry, the taxidermied groundhog that has served as the department’s weather predictor since 1983, when the tradition began.

The email advertising this year’s cookout claimed that it would be held “rain, snow, sleet or shine,” and it certainly lived up to that expectation.

As grilling got underway shortly after 11, a bone-chilling wind created a small vortex of swirling snow in the walkway behind the Natural Sciences Complex where the braver members of the geology department had gathered.

The scent of grease grew heavy, and thick, gray smoke wafted into the frigid air.

“It’s a chance for us all to get together as the semester starts,” said Travis Nelson, an instructional support technician who helped shuttle plates of meat into a hallway where hungry diners were waiting. “We’re all so busy, so it’s just nice to see each other. We’re having this crazy weather, right? And yet, everybody comes out for it.”

At least 50 people attended, though most — including Gus — spent the majority of their time indoors, where a buffet-style spread included buns, ‘dogs, burgers, dill relish, mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, onions, chips and hot chocolate.

There were a few souls, however, who endured blustery winds and frozen fingers to make the event happen.

Alison Lagowski, assistant to the chair, organized the festivities, baked two tubs of groundhog-shaped cookies, and shoveled a clearing for the barbecue. Manning the grill was Sue Bratcher, an instructional support technician who recently moved to Buffalo after spending many years in Fresno, California, and Hawaii. She wore an apron that proclaimed, “Geology Rocks.”

As Lagowski said, “This is her second winter in Buffalo, and today I think she earned the title of true Buffalonian.”

Charles “Chuck” Mitchell, professor and associate dean for research in the College of Arts and Sciences, also was on hand for the celebration. He donned an oversized top hat and posed alongside students in the snow for a photo with Ridge Lea Larry, who wore a special red hat and a decorative “2015” belt for the occasion.

“How did they get the associate dean to come over?” someone asked.

“Hot dogs!” Mitchell replied.

A good time was had by all.

So did the groundhog see his shadow? Nope. That’s according to Dave Borden, Ridge Lea Larry’s handler and one of the founders of the 31-year-old cookout tradition. If the critter’s forecast is to be believed, it means that Western New York is in for an early spring.

That would be a welcome break after the wild weather this week. But even if it doesn’t happen, Lagowski said, “We still had a great cookout and went through all the food!”


Wondering about the origins of the Ridge Lea Larry cookout tradition? Read this Q&A with Dave Borden, the groundhog’s handler.

Back in the 1950s, I often walked 2 1/2 miles to UB, sometimes through knee-high snow. Nothing to it for a geology student. In the U.S. Army, I did pretty much the same thing in Alaska, and later, as a civilian.


Snow I like. Even now, in my 83rd year, I still shovel it and stomp through it.


Jack King and I were in the same graduating class. My wife is a geologist, too.


Kernan Davis

Great to see that two of my favorite UB geology people are still around: Dr. Mitchell and Alison Lagowski.


Jeff Bates