Hilltoppers ‘savor every second’ in national spotlight

issue 01 | summer 2024
Hilltoppers at the Punxsutawney groundhog fest

This was the gig of a lifetime for the Denison Hilltoppers, singing a cappella to a raucous crowd of 40,000 atop Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, one of the opening acts for a hairy headliner that has the mystical power to declare an early end to winter.

The Hilltoppers — let’s decree them the Philtoppers on this day, Feb. 2, 2024 — may not have upstaged the world’s most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil.

But what a day they had.

Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day is something to behold. Adults don groundhog onesies and LED-lit hats that spell out “SHADOW,” complete with a red slash through the word. The skies fill with fireworks and with T-shirts launched from shoulder cannons. Intermittent pillars of flame shoot up on the main stage, throwing heat 60 feet into the crowd. And security on this wooded hill in north central Pennsylvania is tighter than hairpin turns in a rodent’s burrow.

Where’s Waldo, you ask? In the crowd at Punxsutawney. So was Elvis, sporting a shimmery green cape emblazoned with “Ain’t Nothing But A Groundhog.”

Every Feb. 2 in Punxsutawney is an epic whistle-pig shindig. It’s Woodstock for a woodchuck.

Into its midst walked the Hilltoppers, the longtime all-male singing group on campus, founded in 1978, and which welcomed its first female member this year.

They wore their trademark khakis, ties, and navy blue blazers. They stood out.

“Someone called us the Hogwarts kids, which I think is hilarious,” said Emmet Anderson ’25.

It was a long and winding road from The Hill to Gobbler’s Knob. The journey began before the current Hilltoppers were born, back in the 1990s when a top-hatted, tuxedoed gentleman now known as the Thunder Conductor — who, since 2007, has belonged to Punxsutawney Phil’s dapper entourage, the Inner Circle — came across a CD of the Granville group.

He wasn’t known as the Thunder Conductor then. He was just Dave Gigliotti, fresh out of the University of Pittsburgh and starting his career as a chiropractor.

A buddy of Gigliotti’s, it turns out, was dating a woman who had gone to Denison. She was a fan of the Hilltoppers, raved about their performances, and played for them a CD of their recordings, circa 1993.

The relationship between his friend and the Denison grad didn’t last, Gigliotti said. But his appreciation of the Hilltoppers did.

“I’ve loved them ever since,” he said. “I have them on my phone. They play in my car periodically.”

As Thunder Conductor, Gigliotti is responsible for the entertainment that precedes Phil’s famous forecast.

“The ‘thunder’ is the actual crowd noise that morning,” he said.

He reached out to the Hilltoppers about 10 years ago, and plans were struck to sing at the festivities. But an ice storm derailed that visit. Last fall Gigliotti tried again, calling his prior Hilltoppers contact, Nick Ingram ’15. Ingram passed the new invitation on to Hilltopper Gabe Donnelly ’25.

They accepted. They piled into three cars, drove to Pittsburgh Thursday night, and hit the road to Punxsutawney at 1 a.m., arriving in town just before 3 a.m. By then, the masses were already queuing for the army of shuttle buses.

“I got maybe 20 minutes of sleep,” said Max McQuistion ’25. His initial, sleep-deprived take on the proceedings?

“Very interesting,” he said, looking around. “But people go crazy about a lot worse stuff than a groundhog.”

The Hilltoppers were treated like royalty. They were given VIP parking and backstage passes. They performed a 10-minute set at 5:30 a.m., their version of Toto’s “Africa” (a personal request from the Thunder Conductor) about an hour later, and the National Anthem after that.

“Savor every second of this,” Anderson told the circle of friends before their first set. “Because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

There were, truth be told, a few glitches. The outdoor venue was a challenge — the singers said later they couldn’t hear each other well and sometimes not at all — and the rapid-fire schedule didn’t allow for soundchecks. Win Abeles ’25, still recovering from a club soccer injury, had to climb the stairs to the stage on crutches.

And at one point during their set, the festival’s sound system inexplicably blared a Spanish newscast.

They took that in stride, too.

“I was curious why that was happening,” McQuistion said later. “But why not? Added a little spice to it.”

Another unexpected development unfolded as they toured the grounds during a break. A stranger in a groundhog hat approached, addressing them as though he knew them personally.

And he did. Colin Thomas ’26 realized it was his dad; his parents had flown in from California to surprise him.

The Hilltoppers couldn’t get over the size of the crowd.

“It was surreal, being up there on stage,” Donnelly said. “It was just people all the way back.”

“A sea of people,” said Owen Baker ’25, who as an international student from the United Kingdom admitted he found some of these American traditions a bit perplexing. Take, for instance, the four shirtless men that he spied up front, P-H-I-L painted on their bare chests.

“That was something else,” Baker said.

“This is so fun, so, so fun,” said Antonia Baylor ’26, a pioneer in Hilltoppers history as the group’s first female member.

Their obligations fulfilled, the Hilltoppers stood arm in arm as fireworks thundered above the treeline.

They joined the crowd up front and went wild when Phil was held aloft and predicted an early spring, to uproarious applause.

The skies had brightened by then. Their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity taken, the Denison students basked in the national spotlight, soaking it all up. They were not standing in anyone’s shadow.

Published May 2024
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