"It was what Michael wanted," said Linda Morris of Williamstown, his wife of 34 years. "It was not just because of the place, but because these people meant the world to Michael. They were a part of him."
Friendships like this often begin in youth, flower, and then flicker and too often disappear.
But for Morris, one of the original group of 14 friends - seven boys and seven girls all born in 1952 - the Raiders were the kind who become family.
They were all in fifth grade when the boys decided to create a gang - not a menacing one, although they chose what they perceived to be a tough name.
Soon after, no one is sure exactly when, a group of tween girls became the female counterpart, much later to be affectionately dubbed the Raiderettes.
"We were the kind of kids who basically listened to our parents and stayed close to home because everything we wanted was right there," said Gary Boguski over a long lunch at the recent reunion.
Except for the time when Boguski turned 12 and received parental permission to leave his block on his bike for the first time. Gathering up a few Raider buddies, they pedaled across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge into Philadelphia. A little accident that required medical treatment gave them away, and they were duly punished.
Along with Boguski and Morris, the "charter guys" include Richard Supnick, a Cherry Hill attorney; Ted Rosner, a Moorestown oral surgeon; Harvey Lowenthal, a Jersey City accountant; Larry Gottlieb, director of homeless programs for the state of Massachusetts; and Bob Rand, retired and living in Cherry Hill.
Fewer original Raiderettes came to this reunion. Shula Plonsky died in her 20s, and Joan Powell and Lynn Shapiro live too far away.
But present were Janice Goldstein of Elkins Park, Sheryl Gross of Gloucester Township, Flo Weinstein of Mount Laurel, and Francine Kaizen of Baltimore. Linda Morris had recently been given honorary membership status, as had Francine's husband and childhood sweetheart from Camden, Mark.
For most of their teen years, this band shared academic and social lives, and all the coming-of-age milestones, including 13 bar and bat mitzvahs.
Decades later, they all remember dancing to "Where or When" by Dion and the Belmonts, and suffering through those awkward preteen kissing games, too.
Come high school, some went to Camden High and some to Woodrow Wilson.
"But something kept us together - similarity of background, values, academic track, family friendships," observed Rosner.
By the late 1960s, many of their families moved to Cherry Hill. And slowly, with the advent of college, marriage, and adult life, the ties loosened.
Along came middle age, the stage when children leave for school, and life gets reexamined.
Boguski, an attorney who had made a point throughout his life of reuniting with both college and law school friends, had bumped into several Raiders on and off over the years, and began to realize how much each encounter meant to him.
So did others. While she often saw some of the grown-up Raiderettes, Weinstein yearned for more meaningful connection. "We were once so close, and the years were flying by. There wasn't any huge moment but a lot of little moments that we were feeling about getting back together."
The idea of a group trip to Las Vegas for the old gang emerged at a meeting Boguski convened at his Medford home in October 2006.
Weinstein, the group's superstar organizer, got on the case, and the Raiders' rebirth in Las Vegas took place in spring 2007. "This was after a hiatus of about 30 years for some of us. And it could have been a disaster," Weinstein acknowledged.
"The Las Vegas trip was one of the best experiences of my entire life," said Gross, now a single mother, grandmother, and fifth-grade teacher in Paulsboro. "It was just so easy to slip back because we had all shared so much, and even as a fairly new single person, I was totally comfortable."
There were shows and meals and one memorable van trip to Red Rock Canyon on which the group discovered a tiny town called - Camden.
"It was as if those intervening years hadn't really happened," said Goldstein, who still works in Camden as a special-education teacher.
Seeking out old friends in midlife seems to be something of a boomer trend.
Linda Abrams, director of the Spring House office of the Philadelphia Council for Relationships, said finding friends from earlier stages of life feels natural.
"These are the people who knew us when, the people with whom we have an unspoken familiarity. They remember our parents and what our kitchens looked like. That becomes a shortcut and a comfort."
The Raiders have held an annual reunion ever since that Las Vegas trip: There was a Poconos odyssey, followed by the house in Ocean City where a Raiders banner now goes up every spring.
In between, there have been dinners, concerts by Beatles tribute bands, and ongoing breakfasts for local Raiders held every few weeks at the bustling Ponzio's Diner in Cherry Hill.
But nothing, say most Raiders, has linked them as much as the loss of Morris, whom the Raiders describe as "warm," "loyal," "funny," "fun," and the oft-repeated "caring."
As colon cancer took its toll, the local Raiders tended to their friend. Gottlieb flew in from Boston and stayed for three days.
It was during his last days that Morris made clear his desire to be cremated and have his ashes scattered.
"He stressed that when that happened, the people involved were to be his immediate family - and the Raiders, his other family," said Linda.
On a day in Ocean City when the sun refused to shine, the Raiders made it down to the chilly beach for their annual group portrait.
Later, about 35 people climbed aboard a simple boat, and, following the legal requirements, traveled three miles out in choppy waters for the scattering of their friend's remains.
There were Michael stories, champagne toasts, tears. Prayers were recited, and loving tributes made.
When they returned to shore, the sun finally peeked out for the first time that day.
"We all figured," said Linda, "that it was surely Michael smiling down on us and saying, 'Good job! I'm with you!' "