Royally Engaging

updated 05/21/2007 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/21/2007 01:00AM

The stiff smiles, dowdy (albeit colorful) outfits and royal waves were in ample enough supply to satisfy any royal aficionado. But during Elizabeth II's fourth state visit to the U.S., this one 50 years after her maiden trip, the Queen also demonstrated that no one mixes starch and charm to greater effect. As she addressed Virginia state legislators on May 3, a compassion learned during 55 years on the throne—yet seemingly at odds with the flinty public image that hardened during the Diana years—shone through. "My heart goes out to the students, and friends and families of those killed," she said. Afterward the Queen, 81, waded into a group of Virginia Tech survivors in a private meeting. "She seemed interested in us and what we had to say," says Katelyn Carney, 21, who was wounded. "It meant so much to me to see her coming down and meeting the victims."

In the days that followed, Elizabeth graciously endured a 21-gun salute, blaring bands and countless speeches (though a bungled line by President Bush about the U.S. bicentennial drew a stare). Along the way from Jamestown to her first Kentucky Derby to a white-tie state dinner, she seemed to suffer gawkers gladly. When actor Mickey Rooney grabbed and kissed her hand at a British Embassy garden party—breaching etiquette (see box)—the Queen beamed. "She doesn't really mind when someone acts in an earthy way," says etiquette expert Charles Mosley. "She rather likes a bit of this, providing it doesn't go on too long." An unannounced chat with kids, though, made this royal grandmother's eyes light up. She enjoys such moments, says a Palace spokeswoman, "because they are informal and spontaneous"—which, for a woman who seemingly has everything, are precious indeed.

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