Growing up in Rockport in the 1970s and ’80s, Chase Squires remembers it being like summer camp.
Everyone his age seemed to know one another — his Rockport High School class was a mere 54 students . And there were the quarries and beaches and pier to explore, Twin Lights tonic to drink, and summer jobs in town for everyone; he recalled earning $30 a week, which made him “rich” at the time.
But after graduating in 1984, Squires, now 48, eventually drifted away for college and work — since the late 1980s, he’s only been back three times.
Yet hometowns often have a certain gravity — and his pulled him (and hundreds of others) back into its orbit with the first Rockport Reunion, held on July 5. Born of a Facebook group, the event was a celebration and gathering for anyone with a connection to the picturesque seaside community.
“I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see this many friends,” said Squires, a communications and public relations manager at a company in Denver, who flew in to attend the event.
Nostalgia was high and memories flowed freely; old friendships rekindled and new ones forged. The reunion wasn’t about a certain class or club or team or clique — it welcomed all residents, part-time, full-time, natives, transplants, young, old, those who moved along and those who never left.
“This is about a town celebrating connections,” said Jon Cavanaugh, one of the organizers, noting that, whether people were there for just a few months or their entire lives, “we’re all, always, Rockporters.”
Held at Evans Field baseball park, the daylong event included live music from more than a dozen local bands, games, food, and decades’ worth of memorabilia.
It all started when Cavanaugh created the Facebook group, “You know you grew up in Rockport when. . . ” last year. There were 259 members at first; within three weeks, that had nearly tripled. Now, there are 1,530 Rockporters, past and present.
Eventually, the group formed a 13-member steering committee, and raised $4,390 through an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign, and hundreds more through the sale of tickets and T-shirts. The goal is to make the reunion an annual event, Cavanaugh said as he stood in the crowd amassed on the field, wearing a plastic lei and a maroon T-shirt declaring, “I grew up in Rockport, MA, and I remember when. . . ”
The culmination of 10 months of planning, the reunion drew as many as 2,000 people throughout the day, Cavanaugh estimated. Proceeds will fund next year’s event, as well as scholarships, he said.
Motioning around the field, the 46-year-old, who graduated from Rockport High in 1985, said, “I know almost everyone here.”
As if to emphasize the point, a woman who spotted him greeted him with a hug.
So what is it that makes Rockport so special?
Cavanaugh cited one example: Every holiday season, volunteers put together and deliver hundreds of gift baskets for the elderly and those who cannot get out and about. “I’ve been doing that every Christmas morning since I was 13,” he said, adding that he’s introducing the tradition to his kids.
Squires, meanwhile, recalled the annual Christmas pageant: “Half the town’s in it; half the town watches it.”
“That’s the type of community we have,” said Cavanaugh, who now lives in adjacent Gloucester. “It’s unique. Everyone cares about each other.”
And how has it changed over the years?
Squires laughed and shrugged, “It’s smaller. The town is smaller every time I come back.”
Elsewhere on the field, groups sipped beer and Twin Lights tonic, reminiscing about the annual Fourth of July parade and bonfire, school sports championships, the Sandpiper Inn, Jimmy’s Sunrise Restaurant, the pier, the tourists, the local barber who was in business for more than 60 years. They waved and called out to each other, hugged and laughed.
“That’s Tania — I know that face from Facebook!”
“Barbara, my God!”
Most wore bracelets denoting their graduation decade — stars for the ’80s, lightning bolts for the ’70s, gold VIP for those pre-1950.
Ninety-two-year-old Jean Cameron, a lifelong resident, sat in a folding chair with several other generations of her family, wearing her VIP bracelet.
“I met one of my classmates,” she said. “I don’t know many that are still alive.”
Across the field, old yearbooks sat in boxes to be flipped through at leisure, and a table offered a pile of vintage photographs, as well as large fluorescent poster boards filled with thoughts such as “Rockport is where my heart and home is.”
Several tents held Girl Scout sashes filled with badges, sports jerseys, and trophies from across the years, and boards bearing black-and-white photos of sports teams, graduating classes, and local newspaper stories.
Janine Boucher and her daughter, Katharine, examined the latter, chuckling and commenting as they moved along.
“I know all of them!” exclaimed Janine, whose husband, Mike, is running for state representative.
“It’s great for bringing the town together,” she said, adding that most interactions are “in passing — Beep! Beep! Wave, wave.”
Seventeen-year-old Katharine just graduated from Rockport High. Although she’s headed off to college in the fall and would like to explore, she said she’ll be back to her hometown.
“I like the small-town feel,” she said, “how everyone knows each other and supports each other.”