SOUTH PORTLAND – Recently, my friend Michael McDonough invited me, repeatedly, to a reunion of past Munjoy Hill residents, put on annually by the “Hill Boys.”

Finally, I reluctantly agreed to join him. I figured I’d go for a few minutes, have a beer, eat a piece of pizza and then make some excuse to leave.

“You’ll see a lot of people you know,” Mike promised. But I grew up on Washington Avenue — does that qualify me as a Hill Boy?

Sure, I “hung around” and had some friends on the Hill, but I had to ascend Cumberland Avenue to do it.

Having just returned to the area three years ago after being away for 30 years, I questioned if I would know a lot of people. I spent a career with the federal government, bouncing around the country, making many acquaintances that ended with a transfer notice.

So, even if I did know people at the function what would I have in common with my old Munjoy Hill buddies?

When I arrived at the dinner, Mike was securing a table at a strategically chosen corner of the room so he could see all those who approached.

A former Portland police commander, Mike is still tactical even when choosing his seat at a social function.

I was less than two feet inside the door when Rocco Toppi, a big guy with a friendly face, bellowed out, “Hey, that’s Billy King.”

I knew immediately that it was somebody I had known many years ago, not because I recognized the voice, but because I haven’t been called “Billy” for decades.

Rocco immediately extended his hand and the warmth that exuded from him set the tone of the evening.

He wanted to know if I recognized the fellow with him, Mark Moran.

I didn’t recognize him or most of the “Hill Boys.” We have all gained a few extra pounds and our hair isn’t as dark or plentiful as it once was. But cosmetics aside, the boys of Munjoy Hill were the same as I remembered.

Eddie Edmond was a great baseball player who, I’m convinced, would have gone pro if he had grown up in a warmer climate. Peter Gribben, who to this day I still call “Mr. Gribben,” because he was my history teacher at Portland High and because his years of charitable work with church and civic organizations has earned him the respect that the title brings. And John Keaney, who along with his wife Mary are two of the classiest Mainers you’ll ever know.

Other Munjoy Hill alumni have distinguished themselves through hard work, displaying the crusty determination that the Hill instilled — Dr. Jim Moran, a well-known psychologist, business owner Michael Troiano and restaurateur Tommy Manning.

Slimmy Lee has helped more young people through his work at the Portland Boys Club, and later the Boys and Girls Club, than most social programs could fathom.

The Olore twins, whose father (God rest his soul) coached me, and hundreds of Portland boys, in Little League.

When I first returned to Portland, I looked for housing on Munjoy Hill, remembering the sense of neighborhood that was there.

The prices and lack of parking were deal-breakers — the neighborhood now boasts condos and chic restaurants similar to the ones I frequented when I was assigned to New York City.

I had missed something over the last 30 years, and when I went house hunting that day, I thought Munjoy Hill was it. It now struck me that it wasn’t the geography that I missed — it was the people.

The “Hill Boys” alumni had shared struggles — we were all from mostly Italian or Irish decent, working-class families. We grew up when there were no cell phones, computer games or social media.

Our socializing was all face-to-face contact, and it was done on the street corners, outside Siegel’s and Block’s Variety store. You established friends and settled differences — and bonded with each other.

We still share a sense of pride, evidenced by the T-shirts that Freddie Haynes was selling with the simple words “Munjoy Hill” inscribed on the front.

We toasted to other Hill Boys who have long since passed, like Captain Jack Duffy who lost his life in Vietnam, and Joey Cavallaro, a Portland firefighter who died battling a fire.

I realize now that even if I had been willing to pay the current high prices for Hill property, it could never be the same.

Johnny Bellino organizes the Hill Boys’ reunion every year to maintain the camaraderie.

I think Johnny and the others at the event realize that there are no more Munjoy Hills — the sense of neighborhood pride may possibly be lost in the electronic age.

Nevertheless, for that one evening, crammed in a small function room, shared memories kept our neighborhood alive.

Those bonds proved to be as strong as Portland Cement — the Munjoy Hill brand.

– Special to the Press Herald