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Bringing Easter to Ashland

For the 50th Easter in a row, hundreds of children will wait for the signal — a fire siren at 1 p.m. sharp — then pore over Lithia Park, finding 200 dozen not very well-hidden colored eggs, plus lots of the preferred chocolate eggs.

If you do the math, that's 1.2 million eggs delivered by Ashland Rotarians over half a century, enough to stress out even the most dedicated bunny. Dressed up in the bunny costume this year will be Ashland Schools Superintendent Juli DiChiro.

The eggs have been donated for the last 20 years by Safeway of Ashland, then steamed till hard and imaginatively dyed by the chefs of Cascade Dining Hall at Southern Oregon University.

"It takes us a seven- or eight-hour day. We start dying them with blue, red and yellow, then start mixing dyes for orange, purple and other colors," says Cami Picollo, director of SOU resident dining. She and kitchen manager Jeff Zydel handle the whole job.

A team of Rotarians takes the eggs to the college, then to the park on Sunday morning, with about 30 of them patrolling the event. To level the playing field, kids are sorted into four groups by age, 0-2, 2-4, 4-6 and 6-8, said longtime Rotarian Walt Hoffbuhr, a founder of the event in 1957. Rotarians also give out helium-filled balloons.

The annual event, a source of many childhood memories for Rogue Valley residents, started simply with kids being admitted to a matinee at the Varsity Theater, with admission being one boiled egg (for the egg hunt), says Hoffbuhr.

But quality control issues — and the sheer workload of the increasingly popular egg hunt — came up and Rotary looked to a dependable source of eggs — Safeway, which has volunteered for the job for more than two decades now.

The hunt can be quite a melee, considering the glee and chocolate-mindedness of the wee ones, but Hoffbuhr says it's often the parents and grandparents who get caught up in the mania and seem driven to fill kids' Easter baskets. Rotarians try to keep grownups on the sidelines.

"When you get a couple hundred kids looking for those eggs, it doesn't take long to clean out the park," says Hoffbuhr, noting that two golden colored eggs are sprinkled among each age group's territory, with prizes such as stuffed bunnies handed out for finding those.

Easter egg hunt veteran Hoffbuhr likes to preside over the 2-and-under event and notes that the tots, once they find a chocolate egg, pretty much decide to sit down and eat it on the spot. After all, it doesn't get much better than a chocolate egg.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

With the help of the Easter Bunny, Rotarian Walt Hofbuhr wheels a load of eggs into the Cascade Dining Hall kitchen at Southern Oregon University Wednesday. They are destined to be colored for the 50th Annual Ashland Easter Egg Hunt which Hofbuhr founded. - Jim Craven