Patti Tansley’s first Easter egg hunt was for about 10 kids — maybe. But they were definitely all family and the children of a few close friends of Patti and her husband, Tom.

The tradition grew, though. It started in the Tansleys’ Barnegat backyard and then, when the crowd of hunters got too big, moved to the Barnegat Fire Company’s firehouse, where both husband and wife were active for years. Patti was president of the Ladies Auxiliary and Tom is a former chief.

And the Easter egg hunt kept getting bigger by adding the kids of other fire company members. Then Patti invited more friends, including the kids of people she knew from the Forked River Diner, where she worked for years. Mostly she was the chief baker, but she did whatever needed to be done in the family-run business.

“It grew from being for her family to having over 100 kids there the last two years,” said Nancy Moody, of Lacey Township, Patti’s younger sister and the diner’s owner. “Every kid got prizes, everyone got chocolate bunnies.”

They got more, too — starting with the 3,000 plastic eggs that Patti and a crew of volunteers filled and hid in recent years.

Patti was well into her planning for this year’s Easter egg hunt when she died last month, at just 51.

Her family emphasizes two key points to remember about these annual Tansley Easter egg extravaganzas.

First, Patti and Tom paid for them out of their own pockets. And second, they didn’t start or do the Easter egg hunts as some kind of treat for their kids.

“She never had any children of her own, but she took it on herself to make sure other kids in Barnegat had a wonderful Easter,” said Robin McKean, a sister-in-law — she was married to the late Jimmy Becker, Patti’s younger brother. “So every year, she threw this huge Easter egg hunt. And at Christmas, she did the same thing for kids at the fire company.”

At the firehouse Christmas party, Patti was known for often dressing up as Mrs. Claus — and always keeping up one of her Easter traditions.

“Every kid would leave with a gift, regardless of what the circumstances were,” McKean added. “Patti just had this huge heart, and she could make everyone smile. ... She had a gift.”

Moody said she once asked her sister why she went to all the trouble — and expense — of her extreme Easter events.

“She was the oldest of four of us” — the children of Edie and the late Jim Becker Sr., who owned the Forked River Diner before they sold it to Moody’s family in 1993. (Edie now lives in Florida, near her fourth child, Carol Woelke.)

“And Patti claimed that we went to an Easter egg hunt one year, but they ran out of eggs,” Moody continues — adding that she has no memory of that childhood trauma herself, even if she’s just 13 months younger. “But she said she had a vivid memory of going to an egg hunt and not getting any eggs, and she didn’t think that was fair to the kids. So she started her own.”

She took a lot of time on it, too, all while working at the family diner and being active with the fire company. When she wasn’t busy with all that, “she was very involved in being an aunt,” Moody said.

“She was actually a great aunt” — in every sense of that phrase, because now some of her nieces and nephews have kids of their own. “She was always involved in the kids’ lives, even if she wasn’t physically close to them.”

Patti had diabetes, a disease that runs in the family. She fought it for years, but it affected her feet so severely that she had to stop working and driving a few years ago. She also needed kidney dialysis, but her health had been improving lately, enough to let her get behind the wheel again shortly before she died.

“She was driving, she was animated about things,” Moody said. “She was on the upswing, we thought.”

But Patti was alone at home, working through some of her Easter arrangements, when she fell. She died a few days later.

Her sister said more than 500 people showed up at her memorial service — in the firehouse, of course.

Just a few weeks later, there was another crowd at the egg hunt, which Patti’s niece, Amy Simmons, and a friend, Nicole Richards, took over in her memory. There were no formal speeches about Patti’s Easter history, Moody said. But there was also no doubt who was on everybody’s mind at the 2014 Easter egg hunt at the Barnegat Fire Company.

Contact Martin DeAngelis:

609-272-7237