A WHILE back some Cleveland friends drove out to Oberlin for a weekend in the old college town.

My wife, Christina, and I received them in the president's house, a generous residence in the Georgian style on Forest Street. At the Allen Memorial Art Museum they enjoyed paintings by Turner, Terbrugghen, Modigliani; they heard chamber music over tea, and then, following dinner, they saw a stunning student production of the opera, Hansel and Gretel. The next day they strolled through historic Tappan Square, visited the college's science labs, and trod the playing fields where John Heisman once coached.

As our Cleveland friends thanked us for the weekend, they gushed about what fun the job of a college president must be. I was swept up by their enthusiasm. Images of Mr. Chips mingled with those of a tweedy Socrates conversing with students in the Grove of Academe. Who wouldn't be excited by a heady round of thoughtful lectures interrupted only by high- spirited athletic matches and colorful academic pageantry?

Scarcely had I closed the door than a very different world burst in on these reveries. Two faculty members showed up to discuss an equipment problem at the Computer Center. The president of a large eastern university called to ask what Oberlin was doing about tuition remission for the children of its professors. Three students dropped by to urge that the president's fund support their research trip to the legislature in Columbus. Then, as we were finally turning in for the night, an anxious parent from Seattle called to inquire about security measures for students living off campus.

All this, of course, on a Sunday evening.

The next morning, as I pulled my papers together for a quick trip to attend a meeting of Oberlin's investment committee in New York, I mused over the two different images of my job that the previous day had offered. Is a college president in the 1980s really an educator? What about all those other tasks, the ones that my Cleveland friends did not see? Slowly it came to me. As president of Oberlin, I hold at least five jobs, only one of which is educator. As soon as the 9:35 flight to La Guardia was airborne, I put aside my Plain Dealer and began listing those other roles that I play.

First, the president of a private college is like the mayor of a small city, yet there is one big difference: the college, unlike a town, has a product -- education. That, after all, is why 2,750 students descend upon our village in Lorain County each autumn.

The thought of "product" raised a further thought. Surely Oberlin College, with an annual budget of $35 million, is a business. It must look closely after its endowment of $139 million, not to mention a physical plant worth a third of a billion dollars. It enters into contracts with various unions. The botton line is urgently important. My job, as CEO, is to attend to that bottom line.

Many universities nowadays delight in being "business-like." Oberlin does too, yet we constantly remind ourselves that our "product" is really a process. How can anyone put a number on how much Sarah Cox, a sophomore from Cambridge, Massachusetts, learns each day? How rapidly is Bob Ursan from Saskatchewan progressing toward his goal of being an operatic baritone?

To some extent a college president is also like a village priest. I am often, too often, called upon to sermonize on various topics. I pay pastoral calls, and must be there to exhort and to console at times of personal crisis. I must care about people, and be prepared to hear their problems 'round the clock.

It's no wonder that seven of Oberlin's 12 presidents have been clergymen, or that many great educators, from Cardinal Newman a century ago to Father "Ted" Hesburgh today, have been priests. A college president must be immersed in the values of the civilization; he must be conversant with the "great questions" that have always vexed people.

As the Boeing 707 topped 30,000 feet, my view of my job also reached stratospheric heights. Suddenly the captain turned on the seatbelt sign and we began our descent into La Guardia. So did my spirits. What about all the trivia of my job? What printer should Oberlin be using for its new brochure? Should freshmen be allowed to keep cars on campus? Why was there no coffee last week in the Rice Faculty Lounge?

With these mundane thoughts, a fourth dimension of my work came to me: I am a glorified maitre d'. You spilled your soup? You'd prefer to sit by the window? You found a fly in your vichyssoise? A star maitre d' resolves all problems swiftly and gracefully. So, I suppose, does some ideal president of Oberlin College.

IT WAS A full week before I had time to ruminate further on my job. In the meantime I was back on campus for several days of meetings on our budget and on the institution's long-term plans. Each day began with getting my 13-year-old daughter, Eliza, off to school, after which Christina and I had a second breakfast at the Campus Restaurant. The Campus is an urbanized diner on Oberlin's Main Street, where the town notables gather each day for breakfast, and where one can learn the probable outcome of any election in the country days before the votes are cast.

I would have returned earlier to thoughts of my job had another trip not intervened. Like some unannounced candidate for office, I stormed through several West Coast states on behalf of the college. In each city I met with Oberlin alumni, visited high schools, spoke before civic groups on my field of study, the Soviet Union, and lunched with groups of educators.

Each of these sessions is important in its own way. The 200 graduates who assembled in Los Angeles wanted to know how Oberlin is doing. Their support is essential for the maintenance and growth of Oberlin's large scholarship program.

School visits are equally important. With the "baby bust" generation upon us, colleges are competing hard for the best and the brightest of high school graduates. Fortunately, Oberlin is on a roll. While many universities struggle to fill their places, we are seeing nearly a 20 percent increase in the number of applications. But this does not take off the pressure.

The luncheons for educators have a different purpose. High school principals and school superintendents rightly worry over whether their graduates will get jobs. Oberlin is committed to the liberal arts and sciences, rather than to some narrow pre-professional course of study. As president of the college, I must point out to America's educators that a narrow education means narrowed opportunities. Over a lunch of rubber chicken at a Beverly Hills hotel, I explain that Oberlin's mission is not to train people to do something, but to educate them to do anything. I list the Nobel Prize winners, business leaders, and statesmen among Oberlin's alumni in an effort to defend the school's ideals.

Are they hearing me? A softspoken high school principal from Santa Monica comes up after my talk and introduces herself. She thanks me, saying "I wish you could say these same things to our parents." Hastily I try to recall the name of an alumnus in her area, and ask if he might be invited to speak at her school. She agrees.

MEANWHILE, back on Tappan Square, one of our coaches is indignant that I am not there to meet with him. A violin student is pressing my assistant, Lyn Boone, on why I cannot attend her junior recital. And Christina, who teaches in the German and Russian Department, is rightly beginning to despair over the fact that we have not had a quiet family dinner for a week

On the flight back to Oberlin I peruse a report on college presidencies just issued by Clark Kerr, former chancellor of the University of California. "The American college and university presidency is in trouble," Kerr intones. Speaking of "more pressure, more work," Kerr announces that "many presidents are, and even must be, stoics."

"Now here's cheery news!" I think. It does wonders to learn that college presidents are dying younger each year, and that the burn- out rate among the survivors is soaring. Surely, this accounts for the wonderful camaraderie whenever presidents of different schools get together. The complexities of our jobs unite us. Even without mystic passwords and secret grips, we are like fellow members of some Masonic lodge, bound together by the knowledge that ours are among the most demanding jobs in the country.

And yet there are respites. For me, the pace is broken by runs through the countryside around Oberlin. A quiet evening devoted to my research on Soviet affairs can be worth more than a trip to Hawaii. Then too, there are periodic concert tours with the six other members of the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble. Each of these New Orleans musicians considers the band to be one of the greatest joys in his life. For me, it is a life saver.

Have I painted my job in too-dark hues? The complexities and demands cannot be minimized. Happily, though, they are more than offset by the rewards and satisfactions. Oberlin stands for something very precious in American education. I learned this as a boy, from grandparents and other relatives whose forebears settled in the towns around Oberlin shortly after the Civil War.

My grandmother, who was raised in Oberlin two blocks from where I now live, was a person of awesome strength and sobriety. Her test of character was embodied in a typically Oberlinian mot, "Yes, he thinks, but does he think deeply?" Many of the pleasures of my job come from working behind the scenes to enable students and faculty members to think deeply. This goal might mean acquiring funds to buy books for the library. It might mean arranging for some provocative speaker to visit the campus. Whatever furthers the process of education furthers that deep thinking that is our product. Helping to make it happen brings the same personal rewards that Lee Iacocca must experience when his cars get high marks in Road and Track.

Beyond this are the intangible but enormous rewards that come from constant association with the lively men and women on the faculty who are doing just what they want to do.

The rambunctious energies of students are particularly infectious. How can I describe the pleasure of the hour-long debate that occurred when two students dropped by my office to disagree with a point I had made in a meeting the week before? Or on the bull session that arose spontaneously when I retrieved a book I had left at the Dascomb dining hall?

Walking across campus toward home to write this essay, I encountered Jamil Luckett, a student from Washington, D.C. He noted that I seem preoccupied and suggested that a party with some of his friends in Barnard Dormitory might remedy my mood. My concentration broken, I asked Jamil what he was up to.

"Oh, not much. A mound of reading, a couple of interesting papers, and then four exams to think about."

It occurred to me that for a person who could take such work in stride, thrive on it, and have time for those around him, anything is possible. It occurred to me, too, that the knowledge that such people are coming to Oberlin and flourishing here justifies all aspects of my job, whether small-town politico, businessman, priest, maitre d', or educator.

Adapted from an article which ran recently in The Cleveland Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine.)