President and Mrs. Reagan held an emotional meeting with 139 close relatives of the freed hostages at the White House yesterday and paid tribute to their courage and dignity.
In brief welcoming remarks, the president was misty-eyed and his voice faltered as he gave thanks to God for the hostages' return.
"And God give you [the family members] the understanding and the patience that you'll need now with regard to this homecoming and get-together," Reagan said.
It was, press secretary James S. Brady said, " a good day for Kleenex."
Nancy Reagan wept, and many of the ex-hostages' relatives had damp eyes as the president spoke to them in the State Dining Room.
Reagan mentioned the courage of the 52 ex-hostages, and continued: "but I think it might be appropriate here to say a word about the courage of all of you, the dignity with which you have borne this, the courage when all you could do was wait through the many disappointments . . . . America has to be very proud of you."
The president and his wife, Vice President and Mrs. Bush then mixed with the crowd, shaking hands and exchanging greetings.
Although many of the relatives seemed moved by the occasion while Reagan spoke, they were relaxed and casual during the rest of the session, which lasted just under 30 minutes.
A few embraced Reagan. Many clustered around him, getting his autograph on paper napkins or on their passports.
Dana Lee, 12, the daughter of ex-hostage Gary E. Lee, was asked how it felt to be in the White House. "Classy," she replied.
"Thank you for understanding we're in a hurry," one woman said to Reagan as he bade them goodbye. Four Metrobuses that had yellow ribbons on each window took the family members from the White House to Andrews Air Force Base, where military planes were waiting to fly them to Stewart Field in Newburgh, N.Y., for their long-anticipated reunions.
It was Reagan's idea to have the relatives stop at the White House, Brady said, since they were all being collected in one place anyway for the flight to Newburgh.
The White House kept press coverage of the meeting minimal, banning television cameras and photographers and allowing only five reporters to witness the event from one corner of the State Dining Room.
The White House is planning an elaborate welcome, like the ceremony for a visting head of state, for tomorrow, when the ex-hostages and their families will visit Reagan.
Many of the relatives called yesterday the happiest day of their lives.
Cheryl Kalp, the wife of Malcolm Kalp, said: "My son Michael kept me together in the hardest of times. He's been the man of the house all this long time, but I'm sure he's happy to relinquish that role today." Michael is 14.
Dawn Roeder, the daughter of Lt. Col. David M. Roeder remembered that she sat on Frank Sinatra's lap at the inauguration.
"It was neat sitting on Sinatra's lap, but sitting on Dad's lap will be even better," she said.
Her brother had a new autograph book and said his father's will be the first one he collects.
Many of the family members wore welcome home buttons, or buttons saying: "My Dad's the Greatest."
In the family of ex-hostage Master Sgt. Regis Ragan, there is a Ronald Ragan who was duly introduced to Ronald Reagan.
A Marine combo played such popular tunes as "You are the Sunshine of My Life" and "The Girl from Ipanema," except while Reagan was speaking. Before he arrived, the guests drank orange juice and coffee and ate pastries that were available on two buffet tables. Some small children crawled under the dining table to play.
Kari Jones, 8 and Candace Jones, 10, played with stuffed elephants and koala bears.
Reagan's first word was his usual opening word, "Well." Then he stopped, laughed at his habit of beginning every sentence that way, and recalled how comedian Rich Little had made fun of this speech habit during the inaugural gala.
"I can't start [a sentence] any more, since Rich Little got me on that habit," Reagan said.
The ceremony went off without a hitch, although a routine sweep of the White House was made by Secret Service shortly before it began in response to a telephoned bomb threat. No bomb was found and a Secret Service spokesman said there was no evidence to connect the threat with the hostage release or with any other specific event.
"God bless you. We'll see you all again Tuesday," Reagan said as he left his guests. Brady said the president called the morning "a very moving experience."
Larry Persinger, a brother of ex-hostage Gregory Persinger, called the White House meeting "The icing on the cake."
Several family members called this day, when they saw their relatives again, "a long time coming."