By TOM DINKI
Published February 2, 2024
A new UB star has emerged from the shadows, ready to emulate his predecessor’s foresight and intestinal fortitude, or lack thereof.
The Department of Geology held its first Groundhog Day cookout since 2020 on Thursday and used the occasion to debut a new stuffed groundhog, Ridge Lea Larry II.
“We thought our new Ridge Lea Larry should make his very first prediction the day before Groundhog Day and without all the pressure of competing directly with the likes of Punxsutawney Phil and Dunkirk Dave,” says geology department administrator Alison Lagowski. “It was a nice trial run.”
And on such a cloudy and cold afternoon, there wasn’t much suspense over whether the new Larry would see his shadow outside Cooke Hall and the Dorsheimer Greenhouse. Yet his prediction of an early spring was welcomed by faculty, students and staff all the same.
Ridge Lea Larry has been a campus staple since 1982. That’s when geology department staffer Dave Borden was looking for a fun February activity for a department then isolated on the former Ridge Lea Campus, on Ridge Lea Road off North Bailey in Amherst. Thus, the annual Groundhog Day cookout and its mascot — Ridge Lea Larry — were born.
The original Larry was a taxidermied groundhog commissioned by a customer who never bothered to pick him up; the taxidermist then sold Larry to Borden for $25.
Borden, who retired from UB in 2004, and Larry, who lives on top of Borden’s fridge at his Alden home, were not able to make the Groundhog Day cookout in February 2020. Larry instead attended remotely — via a large printed-out portrait — about six weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down campus gatherings and classes moved to Zoom.
“Well, groundhogs do make predictions,” notes Tracy Gregg, professor and chair of the geology department.
With Borden unable to attend the cookout again this year — but with the department eager to restart the tradition — it was decided to find a new Larry.
The department’s official story is that the new Larry is the nephew of the original and is one of many groundhogs who live around the North Campus, although there are whispers that he is, in fact, a stuffed toy from Amazon.
The new Larry may look a bit different — more exaggerated, cuddly features and a newly made top hat — but he’s hoping to continue the legacy of the original.
It’s not necessarily a legacy of accuracy.
Groundhogs have even odds — exactly 50% — of being accurate, according to a 2021 study led by Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada, that reviewed the predictions of more than 500 groundhogs in North America and compared them with the start of flower blooming in their local area.
UBNow was unable to secure data on Ridge Lea Larry’s historical predictions as of press time, but an unofficial geology department analysis in 2022 found he was more accurate than the famed Punxsutawney Phil, who, according to the Stormfax Weather Almanac, is accurate only 39% of the time.
So why continue the tradition even if the science is lacking?
“It's part of who we are as a department,” says Christopher Lowry, associate professor of geology. “I think every department needs traditions and this is the one that we've passed down.”
If Larry’s prediction of an early spring turns out to be wrong, that’s OK with the geology department. With faculty and students who camp out in the Arctic and get up close and personal with lava, they can handle the elements.
“Geologists, those of us who study the Earth, weather doesn't matter,” Gregg says. “We say there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing, and so a cookout in the winter, that's a perfect example of our willingness to get outside when we need to get outside.”