Weiss’ Punxsy Phil cartoons show all facets of Groundhog Day

MOON TOWNSHIP — You can call him THE Rick Weiss — thanks to his wife, Debe — but it might embarrass him a little bit.

Weiss, the man behind hundreds of Punxsutawney Phil cartoons, posters, postcards, banners and the model of the “Phantastic Phil!” statues in town, recalled visiting an art show during the Groundhog Festival a number of years ago, when he and his wife began talking with a person at the show.

“We introduced ourselves, and my wife said, ‘He’s the one who does the groundhog artwork,’” he recalled. “The person said, ‘Are you THE Rick Weiss?’ I’ve never lived that down.”

Currently, Weiss, who serves as the children’s pastor at Impact Christian Church in Moon Township, is working on The Spirit’s annual Groundhog Day poster and banner. In fact, his first Punxsutawney Phil cartoon was an entry in a Groundhog Club contest.

“If I remember correctly, it was my late grandmother, Alice Weiss, who sent me a clipping from the paper announcing that the Groundhog Club was conducting a contest to update its logo (Phil holding a copy of The Spirit and an umbrella),” he said.

For those who enjoy challenges, Weiss said he hid his name in Punxsy Phil’s tail in the cartoon. It’s clearly visible on the large logo on The Spirit building on Pine Street.

As history has shown, Weiss won the contest, and has been designing Punxsy Phil cartoons ever since – for so long, he’s hard-pressed to remember when he drew that first cartoon.

Weiss created the initial design for the “Phantastic Phil!” outside The Spirit office, which he admits is his favorite cartoon. But when it came to creating the physical statue, he found himself in a bind.

“Mary Jude (Troupe, Spirit publisher) asked if I would do a design and then paint it,” he said. “I thought, I could try, but I had no clue on how to fabricate the paper and the hat.”

He said Troupe actually delivered the unfinished statue to his home, “and it sat in our garage for about three months. I had to say, ‘I don’t have a clue.”

Local artist Sandy Zambory wound up completing the finished statue, “and Sandy did awesome of translating my idea into piece,” he said.

Both Weiss and Zambory attended the ceremony during the summer of 2005 to unveil the statue — named “The Spirit of Punxsutawney” by former reporter Alison Baker — and he and his father also attended a get-together at Gobbler’s Knob following the 32nd and final “Phil!” unveiling.

Weiss was born and raised in Pittsburgh, but his parents were Punxsy natives who returned after his father retired.

“Both sets of grandparents lived there, and I still have an aunt and uncle there: My mother’s sister, Nancy and her husband, Pete Carlton,” he said. “Pete was a typesetter for The Spirit way back in the day.

“I’ve enjoyed many visits to Punxsy over the years, and we’ve brought friends there and given them a tour of the town,” Weiss said. “We always make a stop at Carlino’s/Nick’s.”

His love of art came at an early age, but Weiss said, “I always say I’m more of a cartoonist than an artist. I didn’t have the patience for painting; my first love is cartooning.”

He didn’t enter college for ministry, even though that became his career. As a applied and fine arts major at Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology, Weiss visited friends at a nearby Bible college, where he also met his future wife, Debe, whom he married in 1975.

He took some Bible courses, and he and Debe — who are the parents of two sons, Jamie and Stephen — returned to Pittsburgh, where they began volunteering at His Place, and both shared the post of director — first Rick, until he accepted his job at Impact, and currently Debe.

“One of the churches was looking for a children’s minister, and it seemed like a good fit,” Weiss said. “It was not something I had planned. God closes one door and opens another.”

This month will mark Weiss’ 20th year with the church, where he has also used his artistic talent on various projects.

Weiss also draws editorial cartoons for Gateway Newspapers, but admits his time for drawing is limited.

“If I had several lifetimes, I’d keep cartooning and photography, do this that and the other,” he said. “The church has been really growing. So I’ve got to say, I don’t get to (draw) nearly as much as I would like to.”

As if his artwork being seen around the world during Groundhog Day — and being known as “THE Rick Weiss” — isn’t enough, his work has even made it to the silver screen.

In the diner scene between Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell in the 1993 film “Groundhog Day,” one of Weiss’ Punxsy Phil cartoons can be seen on the wall.

“They sent a bunch of newspapers, and they put the clippings on the walls,” Weiss said. “Whenever we watch the movie, we freeze-frame it, and I say, ‘There’s my artwork.’”