Beyond the Groundhog

There was a war on, and that fact contributed to Elaine Kahn’s being named the first woman sports editor of the Pitt News. Along with the title came a seat in Pitt Stadium’s press box—a seat she was the first woman to occupy.

When she graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1944, she was among a handful of women hired by the Associated Press. For the next few years, she covered, from afar, a recurring story: the Punxsutawney groundhog’s forecasts of more winter weather or an early spring.

In 1950, though, the groundhog festivities were out of the ordinary. First, there was a premiere of When Willie Comes Marching Home at a Punxsutawney movie theater, followed a few days later by an appearance of the film’s star, Colleen Townsend, at Presbyterian Church services. Dispatched to Punxsutawney by the AP to cover a rumored career switch on the part of Townsend, Elaine Kahn later wrote, “The climax to Ms. Townsend’s visit came when she addressed the congregation and explained her reasons for giving up Hollywood for God.”

Before she left town, Elaine Kahn made the acquaintance of the Groundhog Club president, Frank Lorenzo. He, in turn, introduced her to his bachelor friend, Sam Light. Seven months later, Elaine Kahn became Elaine Light and left Pittsburgh for Punxsutawney.

She stayed for forty-one years.

Elaine Light

Elaine Light, photographed recently in her Pittsburgh condominium

Light and her husband raised two daughters. Light learned to cook, relying heavily on a copy of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book she bought at Horne’s. (It’s still a favorite of hers today.)

Sam Light became president of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club in 1952. A few years later, his wife began turning the groundhog story into a series of cookbooks with titles like Cooking with the Groundhog and four editions and eight printings of Gourmets and Groundhogs. Proceeds from sales of the books benefited community organizations. She was also instrumental in creating groundhog-shaped cookie cutters—manufactured, she said, “so people would have something to serve on Groundhog Day.”

Two decades after her arrival in Punxsutawney, Elaine Light started writing a weekly column for the Punxsutawney Spirit. When the newspaper’s editors offered her a columnist’s spot, they cited, she later said, “my strong sense of indignation.” (An entertaining collection of her columns published by the Spirit Publishing Company in 1982 and called People Who Love Groundhogs shows little in the way of indignation.)

Beginning in 1963, Light served on the Punxsutawney Area College Trust and became president of its board. For more than twenty years, she was also a mainstay of the Planning and Zoning Commission. In 1990, she was among those who cut the ribbon at the dedication of the IUP Culinary School at Punxsutawney.

According to remarks that appeared in the Indiana Gazette on that occasion, Light called the school “a culmination of a three-year effort by members of the Punxsutawney Area College Trust, the community, IUP, and our elected representatives. It is a triumph of those who worked to establish the Punxsutawney branch of IUP in 1962, to promote and keep it here, and to find a new purpose to help it grow.”

In 1991, Light was the main speaker at the Culinary School’s first graduation ceremonies, held in the auditorium of Punxsutawney Area Junior High School. She was a stand-in, since the scheduled speaker, Jack Braun, had been in a traffic accident earlier in the day. Even more tragic, the death of the school’s director, Chef James Mitchell, only hours before, was also announced.

Around this time, Elaine Light moved back to Pittsburgh. Her husband, Sam, had died in 1983. Before his death, in their last, long-term project together, the couple had worked on establishing the Punxsutawney Civic Center and Borough Building. Designed by Tasso Katselas, the facility includes a library and groundhog zoo.

Settled for the last two decades in a sunny, spacious condominium with a view of Mellon Arena, Light has been a freelance food writer for the Pittsburgh Press and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and has conducted food-related courses for Carnegie-Mellon’s adult education program. In travel throughout the world, she has pursued her food interests in many countries. (“In Thailand,” she said, “everyone else went to Phuket. I went to cooking classes.”)

Over her lifetime, Light has studied with such culinary superstars as Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Madeleine Kamman, and Giuliano Bugialli. Now, through a gift she made in memory of her late husband, Elaine Light has contributed to the future of Punxsutawney and of culinary education.

This past March, the IUP Council of Trustees approved naming a new facility in Punxsutawney’s Fairman Centre the Samuel R. and Elaine K. Light Culinary Library. In addition to her monetary gift, Light is donating her collection of cookbooks to the library, including many autographed by culinary superstars like Julia Child. A mid-September ribbon cutting is scheduled for the centre, located along Mahoning Street in the former J. B. Eberhart Building.

The centre is named for the Alan and Roy Fairman families in honor of their $1.9-million gift. It will have retail space on the first floor and residential space and classrooms for students in IUP’s Academy of Culinary Arts on the second and third floors. Total costs for the three-year renovation of the 25,000-square-foot building are estimated at $4.7 million.

Even though her husband led the Groundhog Club for nearly a quartercentury and she herself is a lifetime member, Elaine Light said she “wanted to give Punxsutawney something beyond the groundhog.”

“A town can’t live without being tied to something,” she said. “The boom time for Punxsutawney was in the nineteenth century—the time when the Eberhart Building was built. It couldn’t go on forever using up natural resources. We had to look to the future.”