Summer camp kids are all grown up

St. Pierre School of Sport reunion at the M.V. Museum reunites old friends.

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Front row, from left: Bill Coogan, Jeremiah McCarthy, Seth Gambino, and Chris Baer; middle row: Stacey Morris Porterfield, left, and Tarni Levett Fondren; back row, from left: Nan Tull, Emily Coggins, Tom Singer, Fred Abrahams, Posie Haeger (seated), and Claire Ganz. – Laura Noonan/Courtesy Martha’s Vineyard Museum

It was clearly “a night to remember” at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum‘s first St. Pierre School of Sport Reunion. The camp moved into the 1895 Marine Hospital, originally built for ill and injured seamen, in 1959.

Tuesday evening the tornado had come and gone, and past campers and counselors milled about, sharing many memories and lots and lots of laughter. Everyone rhapsodized about their time up on the hill, and their memories rekindled a joy that permeated the evening. 

Fred Abrahams shared how he loved that there was a mix of Vineyard kids and off-Islander kids like himself. “My mother was born here, but I didn’t grow up here. And so it was a chance for me to get to know Island kids, and there were a lot of them. That was important. I made friendships. Kids who I still know today.” In fact, during its tenure as a boarding camp, kids came from as close as Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, but as far as Russia, Sweden, France, China, and more. Later it was a day camp, catering to working Island parents who needed a place to drop their kids off from 8 am to 5 pm.

“It was very kid-centered, where they would give children space to play and engage and do a lot of things that wouldn’t fly today,” Abrahams explained. One such was the Boston Globe sword fight, which was the brainchild of Gene Baer, then co-director of the camp. Abrahams recalls, “On Mondays there would be battles with the Sunday Boston Globe, and every camper got to roll up a copy as tight as they could and then there were battles here on the front lawn. A rolled-up newspaper leaves a welt. So, as soon as Mr. Baer saw that the Sunday sports section was imprinted across someone’s shoulders and people were crying, he realized that was not one of his better ideas. But that was the spirit of adventure, that they tried and then adjusted.”

Baer, who just recently passed away, was, in fact, at the center of a great many memorable exploits, including the weekly trip to many beaches off the beaten path. Abrahams remembers one near the head of the Lagoon: “There was always wild watercress, so Mr. Baer always brought bread and butter, and he made watercress sandwiches for us. And there was a drainage pipe that fed into a stream. So, we would crawl through, depending on the tide.”

Many also mentioned Baers’ famous Lammas Night, an annual ritual meant to scare the bejeezus out of the kids. It was sort of Halloween on steroids event. He would have kids walk through the cellar, lit only by a few candles and filled with hidden counselors letting out all kinds of spooky moans and groans, all accompanied by requisite ghost stories.

Another favorite activity were the “skit nights.” Jeremiah McCarthy, then nicknamed “Bullfrog” after the 1970s Three Dog Night song “Joy to the World,” tells me about the profound effect skit night had on him: “We would do two to three skit nights every summer. For me, I was a drama minor in college. And now I have a business called Pirate Adventures Martha’s Vineyard, and I literally perform every day. I get to dress up and be a pirate, and part of that was all the different skits we would create at skit night. The idea of creative thought and expression and performance kind of resonated with me in high school and through college, and now it’s what I do with my life.”

McCarthy talked about other ways the camp helped shape him. “My love of reading was part of it,” he said. “They used to read us books in the afternoon. I remember the first year I was here, Chris Abbott read ‘The Hobbit’ to us, and I made my parents go buy me that set of Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings,’ and I still have that set on my shelf.”

The camp was in a sense liberal arts–oriented. “We weren’t coming here to do a specific thing,” Jainen Thayer emphasized. “This wasn’t tennis camp or this wasn’t art camp, but it exposed you to so many different things. It was a lot of fun, and I think made us into more well-rounded people.”

Thayer also named two other oft-mentioned activities: “I still remember the swimming test you had to take every single year before you could go sailing. I learned to sail here. It was amazing and a lot of great memories.” 

There was also archery, badminton, capture the flag, sing-alongs, and, to many campers’ delight, a water slide that again was Baers’ doing. “They used to have a water slide they’d lay out for us,” Seth Gambino told me. “There used to be a hydrant right on the lawn. The whole thing would run down the field. Of course, it was kind of homemade, so we’d always end up with little scrapes and cuts on our bellies.” He tells me that when he was a camp counselor, “One of the little kids’ favorite things was to take their sticky, candy-covered hands and run down my legs and pull every single hair out. And, of course, I reacted and laughed, and they thought it was even funnier.”

McCarthy’s words echoed as the reunion ended: “Friendships that I still have today were formed at this camp. Memories that construct some of who I am as a person.”

For anyone wishing to add their own oral history about their time at Camp St. Pierre, contact Linsey Lee, oral history curator at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum at llee@mvmuseum.org.