On Sunday morning, at about 6 a.m., the temperature was around 30 degrees, it was cloudy and there was a soft drizzle.
I hopped in my car to make the short drive to Crossroads Farm in Malverne, just a few minutes away. After parking across the street from the farm, I found that over 100 people had already crowded the greenhouse there, where they were waiting patiently for Malverne Mel to make his annual prognostication. Some parents had their children on their shoulders. Others raised their smartphones to get a better shot of Mel.
To be honest, before I started covering the village as the editor of the Malverne/West Hempstead Herald in September 2017, I had no clue about the annual phenomenon that is Groundhog Day with Malverne Mel, and the fact that this tradition took place just a few minutes from my home. Of all the holidays, I never thought much about this one. And I didn’t care much about a rodent’s prediction of whether we’d get six more weeks of winter or an early spring. But these past three years of covering Mel and seeing the glee he brings to people of all ages have won me over.
In my first year of covering the event, I did some research on the furry creature that people celebrate each year. The village’s tradition was started in 1996 by former Malverne Mayor Joseph Canzoneri and Barry Manning, editor of the Malverne Times, which became the Herald in 2001.
With each subsequent mayor, the event grew. A petting zoo and even a wife for Malverne Mel — Malverne Melissa — were added into the mix in 2003. Almost every year thereafter was marked by another bit of folklore that became part of Malverne’s history. Not too long after their marital union, Melissa and Mel had a baby — another Mel — who took over as the village’s chief prognosticator in 2008.
In 2011, the village canceled the ceremony for the first time because of an ice storm. Not one to ignore his responsibilities, Mel became the first groundhog to phone in his prognostication. In 2017 the event moved from Chester A. Reese Veterans Memorial Park to Crossroads Farm.
I also learned that the Cliff Richner, former publisher of the Heralds, took part in the festivities for several years — top hat and all.
This year, as I prepared for the event, I watched the 1993 film “Groundhog Day” for the first time. (OK, well, better late than never.) The film follows Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connor, played so winningly by Bill Murray, who begrudgingly covers the Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Pa. Connor, who loathes his annual assignment, treats everyone around him rather Scrooge-like — and wakes up the next morning at 6 a.m. to find that it’s Groundhog Day once again. Caught in a time loop, he repeats the day over and over, with no clue as to why. The day finally ends when he decides to act selflessly and live with a glass-half-full instead of half-empty mentality. While the film is full of laughs, it also gave me a new perspective on the annual tradition in Malverne.
I get to be part of an event that only takes place in a few communities, like Punxsutawney (starring a marmot named Phil), Holtsville (Hal), and Staten Island (Chuck).
Seeing how a small animal can bring people from all walks of life together — whether they’re locals or visitors — is a unique experience that I’m proud to be a part of. Maybe it’s the Groundhog Day poster contest, in which children in the village draw their best depiction of the holiday. Or maybe it’s seeing parents tell their children about the wonders of Malverne Mel.
I’m not sure what it is, exactly, but last Sunday I was one of the many who had their smartphones raised to record Mel’s prognostication. And next year — like Phil Connor — I’ll be sure to wake up to Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe.”
Nakeem Grant is the editor of the Malverne/West Hempstead Herald. Comments about this column? Ngrant@liherald.com.