THE CAKES ALONE MIGHT HAVE done in a lesser woman: a red, white and blue sheet cake, a multiflavor cheesecake and a six-foot Sara Lee. But not once during Hillary Clinton's extended 50th-birthday fete—a nostalgic, day-long visit Oct. 27 to her hometown of Park Ridge, Ill.—did the honoree's enthusiasm flag. (Her actual birthday, Oct. 26, was celebrated at the White House with a surprise visit from Chelsea, home from Stanford.) "I could not ask for a better way to turn 50," she told students gathered for a marching-band welcome at Chicago's O'Hare airport. "It has happened so fast."

Hillary, who had kept a relatively low profile until recent months, seemed happy to be at center stage for her big day. Radiant in a tailored black-wool pantsuit and gold necklace—a birthday gift from the President—she led two busloads of friends on a tour through Park Ridge's leafy streets. At Eugene Field Elementary School her second-grade teacher Caroline O'Laughlin praised A-student Hillary as "my incentive" to keep teaching. At the Chicago Historical Society, where the First Lady sat for an interview with historian Carl Anthony, the audience watched video clips of her mother, Dorothy Rodham, 78, recalling her young daughter. "She was kind of an exasperating little girl because she was right most of the time," said Rodham. Then, along with Mom and brothers Hugh, 47, and Tony, 43 (Hillary's father, Hugh, a drapery manufacturer, died in 1993), Hillary dedicated a park in her name, revisited her childhood home at 235 Wisner Street and accepted a Chicago Bulls jacket from Michael Jordan's mother, Deloris, after joining the President for a bash at Chicago's Cultural Center.

Not that the day was a total lovefest. A handful of right-to-life protesters picketed Hillary's motorcade, while over at Field Elementary, former classmate Sukkie Askew Stanley teased her about having been better at earning Girl Scout badges than attaching them to her sash ("I'm still working on my sewing badge," joked the First Lady). But if hitting the big five-o was taking a toll, it didn't show. "I think the pain of turning 50 is gone for her," said TV producer and longtime friend Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. "When you consider the alternative, she's pretty happy to be here."

KIM HUBBARD
LINDA KRAMER in Park Ridge

  • Contributors:
  • Linda Kramer.