PUNXSUTAWNEY — When A.J. Dereume received a phone call from Inner Circle President Bill Deeley one day this past April, he thought he was offering him ice cream.
“The way that it happened, I was at my house, and Bill Deeley called and asked what size top hat I would like to have,” Dereume said Thursday. “I thought he was at Joe’s Drive-In and was picking up ice cream. I said, ‘They only have one size.’”
As it turns out, Deeley was asking Dereume if he wanted more than just a spring-time treat.
“He said, ‘What size top hat would you like to wear?’” referring to perhaps the most important piece of the Inner Circle image. “I thought he was kidding. I thought he was talking about something else. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty big honor.’”
As the successor to former Inner Circle member Steve Means, Dereume is not only the Inner Circle’s youngest member ever — he’ll turn 32 Jan. 30 — but he is a third-generation Inner Circle member.
Dereume said the way he understands it, his great-grandfather Raymond Dereume was certainly a member of the Groundhog Club, but that was in the days before the top-hat-wearing, tuxedoed Inner Circle.
However, both his grandfather, August John “Augie” Dereume, and his father, August John “Jack” Dereume Jr., were Inner Circle members.
He’s also in a unique position of having witnessed Groundhog Day, as a young person, go from being a relatively quiet, small-numbered local gathering that didn’t gather much attention, to the worldwide media blitz that it is today.
“When my grandpa was in it, Dad and I would go up,” Dereume recalled. “The first Groundhog Day that I remember going to, we would hop into Dad’s Jeep and go up just before daybreak. There would be a couple hundred people there. Bob Curry from WPXZ would be in a stand — a platform in a tree that someone would hunt out — and they did their broadcast. There would be people with tents up front. It was crazy. There would be only about 100 people there. The years that Dad was in, Dunkels would have their roofing truck, and the kids would sit on the ladder racks.
“Then the movie came out, and that’s when it hit the fan,” he said. “Dad was in it then, and we kind of got to witness that first-hand.”
After the release of the 1993 film “Groundhog Day,” gone was the time when Groundhog Day was over almost as soon as it began.
“It went from a basic commitment that lasted three hours,” Dereume said. “You’d go up at 5 a.m. and be at work by 9 a.m. It went from that to being just all kinds of involvement, being busy all year.
“It was absolutely crazy, seeing it from the perspective that I had. We really got to see it. It has been very mind-blowing when we saw it from just this little thing our town did, and now, the townspeople are in the minority. I’m pretty impressed to see the growth.”
“We were just looking for someone with a little bit of all-around abilities to do whatever, someone to succeed Steve, and maintenance of the Knob,” Deeley said. “He’s also one of those guys who can fix anything, keep it going if it is broken. He’ll use some wire and baler twine to keep it moving.”
Both Dereume’s father and Deeley entered the Inner Circle together in 1986, and the younger Dereume would help his father and other Inner Circle members when duty called in the off-season.
“He would come along when we would get ready for picnics, doing little things, work weekends,” Deeley said. “If he wouldn’t work with Jack or me, he’d work with older guys and baby-sit them, and the older guys would baby-sit him. He’s been participating for years.”
“When Dad was involved, I was always helping him out there,” Dereume said. “When he passed away, I told them, ‘Don’t think that because Dad is not around, (I won’t be here). I’m still more than willing to help.’”
Now, his duties include maintaining Gobbler’s Knob as it pertains to Groundhog Day. The most important part of that duty as Feb. 2 nears is plowing and keeping the field free of snow.
“I make sure that everyone knows where they need to go, such as the media — anybody like that, all those people. When it all comes down to it, they come to me,” he said.
He’s also in charge of maintaining Punxsutawney Phil’s burrow on wheels, the Philmobile.
Since he has been named an Inner Circle member, Dereume — who works at Inner State Gas and Northeast Energy Indiana — has taken part in events such as the Old Home Week and Home for the Holidays parades, as well as appearances at an Altoona Curve Game and the Clarion County Fair.
But he said nothing will compare to his first appearance Feb. 2 at Gobbler’s Knob.
“I’m going to have a hard time keeping a straight face,” he said. “Being there every year, seeing it from the crowd and also just knowing how excited my dad and his buddies all got, it’s going to be really great to be on the other side of that. It’s going to be awesome to stand on that stage.”