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Sean Kirst: For Dunkirk Dave's caretaker, every day is Groundhog Day

This was a surprise. "Dunkirk Dave," it turns out, is a Groundhog Day stage name. The groundhog who greeted his public just after sunrise today in Chautauqua County, the groundhog with a national reputation, is actually known as Hoppy and has a story all his own.

Not that it really matters. Bob Will, the guy who cares for Hoppy, said groundhogs do not respond when called by name. They prefer whistles or a clucking noise or the sound of treats shaking in a plastic bag, and while no one ever misidentified groundhogs as the Rhodes Scholars of the animal world, they are capable of learning to ring a bell to get some food.

Hoppy's family lived under an old barn. It fell apart. The groundhogs tried to flee. Hoppy's mother was killed. Hoppy, as a baby, was trapped by falling beams that crushed some of his bones. He could have been a goner, but the people who discovered the injured animal turned him over to Bob Will.

From near-death, Hoppy has found celebrity. He'll probably have a second turn Friday in the long line of groundhogs to serve as Dunkirk Dave. Hoppy will seek his shadow in Will's yard, in front of cameras and such dignitaries as Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul.

Will and Bill Verge, a groundhog associate, saved Hoppy's life. They fed him by hand until the groundhog was strong enough to move around in Will's fenced-in yard near Lake Erie, in the Town of Dunkirk. Hoppy's injuries were too severe to give him any chance in the wild, leaving him as one of the seven or eight groundhogs who live year-round with Will, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

There is also Sweetie Pie, who at 20 is the oldest groundhog Will's ever seen. She endured a severe blow to the head years ago. Will and Verge feed the frail, elderly groundhog by hand.

They also care for Bullet, named after the bullet that creased his skull and damaged his nervous system, a little guy who nestled comfortably Wednesday in Verge's arms.

All of this is observed by a rotund groundhog Verge calls Boy, who lives in a multi-level cage in Will's office and keeps an eye on everything. Once he sizes up a stranger, he will make a churring noise, almost a bark, similar to the sound made by a rotating metal wheel on a rusty bicycle.

"That means he's happy," Will said.

Still, he advises against sticking your fingers in the cage.

Bob Will holds Bullet, one of the groundhogs he is rehabilitating at his home in Dunkirk . (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Dunkirk Dave is billed as the "world's second longest prognosticating groundhog," after Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania. Even so, it is hard to believe there is anyone in this nation, in Pennsylvania or otherwise, whose sheer level of genuine concern for groundhogs exceeds that of Will and Verge.

"I can't really travel away or go on vacations," Will said. In the spring, people bring him baby groundhogs. Sometimes it happens in secret, when a worried husband or wife comes upon the babies during yard work or excavations, and the other spouse, irritated, wants to kill the animals as a garden-ruining nuisance.

By the beginning of summer, Will and Verge might be caring for 50 groundhogs. The babies demand hand-feeding, an intense level of care. Will also tends to injured squirrels and other small mammals, and he said the fulfillment when he finally releases the animals is better to him than any Florida getaway.

"It's rewarding to take care of them, because too often people don't see their value," said Will, who emphasized that he's only one of many rehabilitators in the region, dedicated to the same work.

His entire philosophy, he said, is built around the underdog.

As a teacher, he worked with middle school students who struggled in traditional classrooms. He said Jack and Betty Cantillon, an older couple he knew when he was a teen, saw the way he responded to children born with developmental disabilities. They urged Will to make that affinity into a teaching career.

He did. Almost 60 years ago, he started bringing groundhogs to class on Groundhog Day. A school custodian, Leonard Catalano, mentioned the informal tradition to some friends at The Dunkirk Observer, who showed up to do a piece on the little "does-he-see-his-shadow" event.

Decades later, the ritual is no longer so little.

Now retired as a teacher, Will has two passions: Groundhogs and typewriters. His father ran a television and typewriter repair shop. Will still repairs typewriters, primarily Smith-Coronas, a skill that attracts a nationwide clientele.

Quentin Tarantino, the famed director, is a customer. So was ESPN, when the sports network needed someone to repair the typewriter of legendary sportswriter Claire Smith.

Ask for Will's age, and he answers vaguely. There aren't many typewriter repair specialists left, and he doesn't want someone to shy away from buying a typewriter out of concern about whether he'll be around to fix it. Better to know that Will's father is closing in on 98 and going strong.

Will said it was his parents, during his childhood, who told him to do what he felt was right when he came upon a groundhog that had been shot.

"I nursed it back to health and let it go," Will said, "and took great pleasure in that."

When you visit Will, he greets you in a home office filled with computer screens, Post-It notes and bits and pieces of typewriters, an office where 10 phone lines ring constantly, and Will and Verge listen to messages as they work.

Maybe it is the spouse of an inmate in a state prison, someone who needs a typewriter repaired, because prisoners are allowed to make use of typewriters.

Maybe it is a staff member for Hochul, calling to say the lieutenant governor plans to attend the ceremony, the first time Will remembers any governor's office showing interest in whether Dunkirk Dave – or in truth, Hoppy – manages to see his shadow.

Hoppy, for his part, is still coming out of hibernation. When groundhogs fully hibernate, Will said, they turn ice cold and for all intents and purposes look dead. To perk up Hoppy, Will intends to put the drowsy groundhog beneath his shirt for about 45 minutes, allowing body warmth to gradually revive the animal.

Sometimes, groundhogs are happy and affectionate as they wake up.

Sometimes, they bite. They have big teeth.

"I don't recommend them as pets," Will said.

He and Verge have worked together for years. Verge started out as a handyman, cutting Will's grass and doing other jobs around the house, and Will soon noticed how Verge shares "a heart for wildlife." They raise young groundhogs until the animals are strong enough to release on woodland property owned by a friend, a place far from neighbors where there is no hunting.

Bob Will with a drowsy Hoppy and his Groundhog Day associate, Bill Verge: They made sure Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul will have a place to park at Will's small home near Lake Erie. (Mark Mulville/The Buffalo News)

Will knows many people despise groundhogs. They "kill them and poison them and explode them like they have no value, no right to live," he said.

His perspective, after caring for the animals, is the opposite. His Groundhog Day tradition is really about that affirmation, involving the one prediction he guarantees is true.

If you find a groundhog, you know it will be safe with Bob Will.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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