John Heinmann, the U.S. Comptroller of the Currency, was asked on Wednesday night to say a word about new National Bank of Washington chief executive Luther Hodges Jr.

Speaking to a select group of bankers at a private reception for Hodges at the home of longtime District banker Leo Bernstein, Heimann said he wanted to say two words : "Good luck." 'heimann, the nation's chief bank regulator, said no more to the group, reported one of those present.

Heimann's remark, while not that surprising, comes just a few weeks after his agency signed a unique agreement with NBW that could signal the end to a tumultuous period for the city's third-largest and most controversial bank.

Despite solid political and financial connections and continuing dividend payments to stockholders, NBW has been plagued by a complex series of legal and financial problems. Those traumas, stemming from bad loans and other indications of bad management, are over, Hodges believes.

In his first interview since taking the job three weeks ago, Hodges said those problems -- including federal grand jury and Securites and Exchange Commission investigations -- that face a number of former bank officials may not be over. But Hodges said he believes the management of the city's third-largest bank can now chart its course for the 1980's and slowly escape the negative publicity and suspicion that have troubled the bank of late.

"I basically feel the bank does not have legal problems," Hodges said. "What we have to do is make some money. The only legal problems we've got are the legal fees."

Why Hodges, the former -- chairman of the North Carolina National Bank, take the job with NBW?

As the presidential election approached, Hodges, then in the Commerce Department, said he was quietly looking for a private-sector job when Nathan Landow -- an area builder, Democratic party fundraiser and member of the NBW board -- approached him about the NBW position. "This is an opportunity to take advantage of what in the next decade will be the most exciting industry in America," he said. "I have always spoken out on the need for business, labor and government to understand each other better. This bank can become a vehicle to show that."

Yet despite Hodges' excitement about the future of an increasingly deregulated industry -- a future enlivened in the Washington area, by the inevitability of some form of interstate banking -- he has put himself in a difficult situation.

For the past decade, the bank has gone through chief executives practically as fast as running back through the Redskins' defense. Former NBW president Dale Jernberg lasted at the bank from December 1978 to September 1980. Jernberg was the third chief executive in the last 10 years.

"I am aware of the turnover of chief executives in this institution," Hodges said. "Obviously, I needed a contract that would protect me going into this situation." Hodges will only say the salary range of his five-year contract is more like "banks number one and two, rather than banks number three and four."

Further complicating the situation is the fact that Hodges is force to work under the pact with the comptroller's office, which stepped into the situation in October and worked out and agreement with the bank and the United Mine Workers of America, which owns about 76 percent of the bank's stock.

Among other things, that agreement requires the bank's managment to fill vacancies on its board with people independent of the UMW, hire a new senior lending officer, strengthen its credit procedures, limit loans to those who have loans under scrutiny, set up a code of ethics and prepare a three-to five-year business plan.

"I have told the board and others that there is not a thing that the comptroller has asked of us that food management would not do anyway," Hodges said.

Only a handful of top management people remain in place at NBW, including NBW President Frederick Henschel.

But, Hodges said the bank's international, real estate and commercial departments are "all quite good by anybody's standards." But, he said, there is a need for tighter management control. "That and the restructuring of the board of directors are my principal concerns at his particular moment," he said.

Hodges insists that he and not the board or principal stockholder will run the bank. "Some people have abused their positions as a director to either get involved in the management of the bank so that there were improper actions. That won't happen again," Hodges said. "Just don't want them going to the loan officer or the branch manager telling them what to do. They will come to me and I will take care of it."

Further, Hodges pledges that the board will be more diverse than it has been and will include blacks and women, and even Republicans. "We need visibility," he said.

"I am amazed at the gulf here between the public and private sectors," he said. "I want the board to reflect an ability to bridge that. I never saw anybody in the private sector. There is not much social and economic interaction."

The comptroller's agreement follows extensive critisim of bank practices. The bank's own internal audit committee, in an August report, found a pattern of risky loans and questionable activities.

NBW borrowers who were associated with or perceived to be associated with bank officers or directors "were granted credit or extensions, or credit under circumstances favorable to the borrower which involved greater than normal risk to the bank," the report said.

Among those loans was a $4.5 million loan to the financiers of Laurel Raceway, loans to Bruce Lyons and Robert Holland, one-time Washington real estate wizards, a loan to theater magnate Marvin Goldman and a loan to director John W. Lyon, another local businessman.

The bank's "senior management was too often eager to please influential directors in making credit decisions," the report said. At least $53 million in questionable loans have been cited by federal regulators.

Under those circumstances and an extrodinary third-quarter 1980 decrease in profits to $1.36 million from $1.76 million for the same quarter in 1979, Hodges, largely through political connections, stepped in to run NBW. 1

Who is Hodges and why would he step in to an historically difficult situation clouded by extensive legal problems, long federal probes and a cloud that has cost the bank several large accounts?

Hodges is a 44-year-old Harvard Business School graduate and son of former Kennedy administration Commerce Department Secretary Luther Hodges. He joined North Carolina National Bank in 1962 and worked his way up the ladder of the nation's 23rd largest bank, ultimately serving as chairman from 1974 to 1977.

In 1977, Hodges became a candiadte for the U.S. Senate nomination from North Carolina for the 1978 race, loaned his campaign about $400,000 and thought to be a shoo-in for a primary victory -- only to lose in a runoff to former state insurance commissioner and self-proclaimed populist John Ingram.

Worth close to $1 mllion by his own 1976 figures filed with the U.S. Senate, an overconfident Hodges was beaten by Ingram, who benefited from some not-so-subtle help from the state's Republican establishment. The state's Republicans didn't want Hodges running against Jesse Helms. Hodges, his friends say, was, in part, a victim of big business baiting.

But as a banker, Hodges is widely credited with being an effective manager.

In the state's liberal circles, he is well thought of for bringing minority group members, primarily blacks, into NCNB management.

"Some of the bankers thought he was plain crazy," says one liberal North Carolinian. Says a Tar Heel banker, "he was a tough, aggressive competitor and a man who took action. He's a tough-minded person who may be just what the bank needs." Hodges is also praised for his work as chairman of the North Carolina Manpower Council,a group that works to train the unemployed.

After his defeat, Hodges -- who contributed $1,000 to the presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter -- taught business at Duke University until 1979 when he came to the Commerce Department as a deputy Secretary.

According to a variety of federal sources, he suffered in a little-noticed, large bureaucracy. Sources say he expected to become Commerce Department secretary when Juanita Kreps left the government last year. Instead, Phillip Klutznick was appointed to the post and Hodges was deeply disappointed.

Among Hodges' immediate priorites is the formation of a long-term plan for NBW. "The people here let the market share drop at a time when the environment has been changing dramatically," he said. "We haven't been advertising and we haven't been speaking to our public."

Hodges said NBW is not an "establishment bank" and know that NBW has to carve its own niche, since it cannot match the resources of the city's two largest banks, Riggs National and American Security. "I'm not trying to be the second Riggs in growth and scope," he said. "We can't emulate them."

Hodge also recognizes that the future of NBW streches beyond the District line, a view that he thinks means the bank will have to get into the acquisition game. "I want to be in a position to acquire banks in Maryland and Virginia," he said. "We won't have an identity problem. we'll just throw up a sign that says NBW."

And with the Republicans coming to town, Hodges pledges to bring their business to NBW. I moved to this town as a pretty respectable guy, and I never heard form a single bank," he recalled. "I was never asked for my business. This bank will ask every soul in government for their business. They'll bring money to this town and hopefully to this bank."