WASHINGTON - Della Almind had no reservation about hugging the Easter Bunny on the South Lawn of the White House yesterday. The 6-year-old ran up to the bespectacled, straight-eared creature, put her arms around his middle and pushed her head into his tummy.
The bunny was soft, very soft, she said with a giggle. The pigtailed girl in a pink dress couldn't have imagined being at the White House before her family moved to Washington from Spokane so her dad, John, an Air Force pilot, could help with war planning at the Pentagon.
There were rumors, her dad said, that the annual White House Easter Egg Roll might be canceled this year, as it has been in past times of war. Much to his delight, it was staged yesterday under sunny skies. And with tickets this year restricted to the families of active-duty and reserve armed forces, the parade of people pushing strollers and snapping photos looked as strikingly manicured as the famous South Lawn.
Crew cuts, starched dresses and bows, navy sweaters and jackets abounded in the lush garden, whose red tulips and purple wisteria were in full bloom. The crowd of 12,000 was minuscule compared with the event's heyday in the late 1930s but entirely manageable.
The Egg Roll dates to 1878, when President Rutherford B. Hayes' wife, Lucy, invited children to the White House after egg rolling was banned on Capitol grounds.
In modern times, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were the most welcoming White House occupants, holding the event seven times, including for a record crowd of 53,180 in 1937. President Harry S Truman disdained it, his wife Bess calling it an "orgy of wasted eggs" at a time of food conservation. Dwight D. Eisenhower revived it in 1953 and wandered amid the crowds with his grandchildren, consoling them when eggs dropped from their baskets.
Unfortunately for Della Almind, who hoped to see the current occupant of the White House, George W. Bush spent Easter at his Texas ranch. (Laura Bush was host last year). Lynne V. Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, stepped in this time. She rang the bell for the start of the egg roll as the clouds parted and the U.S. Marine Band broke into "Easter Parade."
"We are proud of all of you, the men and women who serve our country, who keep our country free," Cheney said. "And one of the most important messages I have to deliver today to all the little kids here: We think your moms and dads are terrific."
For some military families like Michelle and Dave Breeding and daughter Ashley, 3, of Gaithersburg, yesterday was the first Easter Monday they have celebrated together in years. The couple were separated last year because Dave Breeding, now at the Pentagon, was stationed on an aircraft carrier in Norfolk, Va.
"I'm more happy than anyone," said Michelle.
The day began with a breakfast of eggs, juice and rolls on the Ellipse. From there the guests were ushered to the White House lawn. Inside, children were entertained by storybook characters, magicians, egg coloring and decorating, and the famous egg roll. For many, it was a nice change.
LaShawn Melson, who colored an Easter basket with her 22-month-old daughter, Hailey, in the warm sun, usually spends Mondays at Andrews Air Force Base training people to respond to medical disasters. "These are ugly times," she said. "If you can spend a day in the grass with your child, it's a welcome change."
In the Paas egg-dying tent, where 3,600 eggs were stacked in cardboard boxes, Jackson Kirschner, 5, and his sister, Julianna, 3, watched their dad, Sean, roll a pink egg dry on a paper towel. Normally, he organizes reservists in the Pentagon. Many an Easter he has eaten military food rations, he said, but not today. "We're having a great time."
The longest lines were for the egg roll. Egg push, really: For this event, children used a plastic slotted spoon to push their eggs along a prescribed path. The course was surrounded by stacks of 5,400 hard-boiled eggs dyed deep blue, green, red and purple in the White House kitchen. Everyone came away a winner, receiving pink and purple Peeps-brand giant marshmallow bunnies.
Jayla Brown, 3, whose mom, Patricia, is serving with a medical combat unit in Kuwait, refused to leave when she got her prize. Partly, she was terrified of the person-sized Easter bunny outside, said her grandmother, Linda High. While her brother, Jaloni, 5, ran with joy to the character, the little girl was carried screaming from the egg course. She might still be there, too, had not a magician pulled the perfect thing for her to hug from his hat: a real, and very tiny, Easter bunny.