Woodstock Willie declares an early spring as huge crowd celebrates Groundhog Day

A massive crowd is gathered on the Woodstock Square Friday morning to witness an unseasonably warm Groundhog Day prognostication: an early spring.

With the big day landing on a Friday this year, with relatively mild weather and with WGN-TV meteorologist Tom Skilling as the star attraction – after the groundhog, of course – the crowd was especially large and jovial, singing along to “In Heaven There Ain’t No Beer” and other favorites from the Groundhog Day polka band that starting playing as the sun came up.

Skilling told the crowd that after about 55 years of weather reporting – he’s retiring at the end of the month – he finally got some forecasting tips from Woodstock Willie.

Then someone joked, “Let’s get the real weather forecaster out here” before Willie was brought out and shared hoisted overhead by his handler Mark Szafran as those in attendance roared with approval.

Woodstock Willie is held by handler Mark Szafran as Willie looks to see if he can see his shadow on Friday in Woodstock. Gregory Shaver/Shaw Local News Network

Skilling had high praise for Willie, calling him “the world’s most famous groundhog.”

Attendee Hadley Wadlington said it was her first time attending the prognostication.

“I was really happy I saw the groundhog,” Wadlington said.

She added she liked the call of an early spring, but she expects we’ll have more winter.

People watch from a tree on Friday during the annual Groundhog Day Prognostication on the Woodstock Square. Gregory Shaver/Shaw Local News Network

Attendee Lisa Ray, who said she had been before, was “all for the early spring.”

“I think it’s a lot of fun,” Ray said.

Throngs turned out despite a fake Facebook account apparently putting out a false report that the festivities had been canceled.

“We took care of it really quickly,” Woodstock Mayor Mike Turner said of the post. He added he didn’t recall that happening in previous years.

Mark Szafran holds Woodstock Willie on Friday as they move through a crowd after Willie predicted an early spring during the annual Groundhog Day Prognostication in Woodstock. Gregory Shaver/Shaw Local News Network

Last year, the prognosticator of seasons saw his shadow, giving us six more weeks of winter. This year, we’ll trudge through six more weeks of winter/have hope of an early spring.

After much buildup on Friday, Skilling delivered the “forecast,” capping off a career at WGN that lasted over four decades. He announced that Willie had not seen his shadow.

Turner encouraged the crowd to come back to Woodstock “throughout the year.” While the city of Woodstock had previously declared Feb. 2 to be Groundhog Day, Turner announced to the crowd Friday was also Tom Skilling Day in Woodstock.

Friday’s festivities included a “Drink to World Peace” shortly after prognostication and a sold-out Groundhog Days breakfast at the Moose Lodge.

Die Musikmeisters serenaded the attendees at the event while they enjoyed eggs, pancakes, potatoes and other breakfast foods.

One of the breakfast participants, Debra Cromie, said it was her first time at the festivities and came because of Skilling.

“It’s so cool,” Cromie said.

Woodstock Willie holds up an early spring sign to the crowd on Friday during the annual Groundhog Day Prognostication in Woodstock. Gregory Shaver/Shaw Local News Network

Skilling spoke to the breakfast attendees, telling them he “shall never forget this.”

“Thank you for the honor of joining you,” Skilling said.

Skilling spent the night before prognostication at the Cherry Tree Inn – where Bill Murray’s character stayed in the “Groundhog Day,” movie famously filmed in Woodstock – and joked that he slept so well he was taking the mattress with him.

He also called downtown Woodstock “magical.”

“This community is gorgeous,” Skilling said. “If it hadn’t been in a movie, it should have been.”

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