NAPLES — When Hurricane Donna came roaring through Naples in 1960, the Gulf of Mexico made a sound so fierce that Merle Harris thought it was going to come right into her Pine Ridge neighborhood home.
“It was the only hurricane that frightened me,” Harris said. “And I’ve been through them all.”
Stories of Donna and other events of days past were told with a loud chatter during the 20th Annual Old Timers Reunion, held Sunday at the Naples Beach Hotel and Golf Club.
With more than 500 in attendance, many estimated this year’s turnout as the largest yet.
“It feels wonderful at my age (to be here),” Harris said, waving to old friends as they walked by.
To receive an invitation to the Old Timers Reunion there’s only one stipulation: One must have been a resident of Naples before Hurricane Donna hit.
As the years have gone by, those who attend the reunion can now bring their children and grandchildren, adding new faces to the mix each year.
The event began 20 years ago in Harris’ home. With two tents in her yard, she was host to nearly 50 people who showed up to mingle and share memories of a Naples where the Beach Hotel was the farthest point north and mail was delivered by boat to some residents.
Looking around the room, 83-year-old Mary Evans Lipstate noted that, with each passing year, the old-timers look forward to the next year when they will reunite to share stories of family and friends.
“As you can tell, they’re having a ball,” she said.
Lipstate recalled the early years of her life in Naples, when her family moved down from Tampa in 1928. Lipstate’s father, Jack Prince, owned the first drug store in Naples, located at Third Street South and Broad Avenue.
“I’ve been coming to the reunion for 16 years and used to help put it on for years,” Lipstate said. “I finally decided it was time to retire and hand it over to someone else.”
Thinking back to the first reunion, Harris noted that she and her now-deceased husband, John, wanted a reason to see their friends after realizing many of them were dying.
“We decided we’d like to see them all before they pass,” she said.
After an hour or so of chatting, the large group gathered inside a ballroom for lunch, continuing their conversations at the table or walking across the room to say, “hello” to an old friend.
Earl Hodges, who moved to Naples in 1956, attended one of the first reunions at Harris’ house and was host to the following three reunions before it outgrew his home.
“Every year I don’t know if I’m going to make the next one,” Hodges said. “I’m just happy to be here.”
E-mail Allie Garza at firstname.lastname@example.org.