For 33 years, Douglas Rathbone Smith has been commuting from his 175-acre farm at Warrenton, Va., to the National Savings & Trust Co. in downtown Washington.

Of the thousands of mornings he has made the 60-mile trip, few have has as memorable a conclusion as the one on Wednesday, March 15.

When he got to work that day, Smith, who has been chairman of the board of the city's fifth largest bank since 1966, was deluged by telephone calls and personal visits from important customers of the bank.

As Smith recalled it, they all expressed distress an disappointment over his "resignation" from the bank before the normal retirement age.

The calls - and the letters that followed later that week - all were triggered by an erroneous report in The Washington Post that Smith had resigned.

Smith had not. He had announced at the bank's annual meeting of stock holders that he was simply relinquishing his position as chief executive after 18 years in that post to NS&T President Joseph Riley.

"In no sense is this to be inerpreted as an indication that I am retiring," Smith had told the stockholders. "It is my greatest prayer that I shall continue actively as a member of the executive management group . . . until the date of my normal retirement on Aug. 30, 1980.

As Smith noted in an interview this week personal relationships and customer confidence are essential elements in the business of any bank.

But at NS&T, the concept of personal bond between banker and customer has been emphasized to an extent virtually absent from large financial institutions in the age of electronic banking and minibranches.

The location of chairman Smith's of fice, a wide-open space right on the bank's main business floor at 15th Street and New York Avenue NW, is perhaps the best indication of his philosophy and that of his bank.

From a seat behind his desk, Smith can see every customer who enters the bank. He personally greets, shakes hands with, talks over current business conditions with, or hails across the floor up to 75 persons a day.

Most bank chairmen or presidents here and in other cities work out of distant offices.

Thus the false report about Smith's resignation caused more of a stir among NS&T customers than might have happened at another institution.

Moreover, this particular report was printed at a sensitive time, because of rumors about attempted foreign investments in several local institutions and purchases of a significant share of Financial General Bankshares stock by Middle Easterners.

A large bloc of NS&T shares earlier was sought by outsiders - reportedly from Kuwait - and the report of Smith's purported resignation fueled much speculation until the chairman repeated to customers what he had told the stockholders.

Smith's ties to customers of the 111-year-old NS&T began in 1931, when he was 15 years old. After graduation from Alexandria High School, Smith took a "temporary" job as a runner and postponed plans for college.

He has been with the bank ever since, except for Signal Corps service during World War II in Okinawa, Korea and China, and one year as officer of a bank in Parkersburg, W. Va. Smith took night courses to earn his college degree and was promoted through the ranks of the trust department before moving up to NS&T vice president in 1950, executive vice president in 1959 and president the following year, when NS&T had deposits of less than $87 million.

Today Smith is chairman of an institution with deposits of nearly $350 million at 13 offices. He also is a director of many business firms and some two dozen philanthropic or civic organizations in the Warrenton and Washington areas, including Wolf Trap, of which he is board chairman.

Smith decided long ago that "it's a banker's duty to serve his community and make himself available to business people," and he has found it difficult to say no to requests from community groups for help.

Similarly, with no door in front of his desk, Smith noted that it's pretty difficult for his secretary to tell employes, customers or fellow bank officers that the chairman "is tied up."

Smith forecast that banking in metropolitan Washington will change dramatically in the next decade or so, with mergers and consolidations creating fewer but larger institutions, regional branching and new competition from banks not based in D.C.

He said NS&T is "alert" to acquisitions as a method of expansion but that no merger discussions are in progress.