ONE OF MY MEMORIES of a pleasant visit in 1969 to the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California, is Frank Kelly. He was the full-hearted, always-in-good-form fellow who made you feel that he was at the place just to enjoy the thrill of being dropped in on by visiting firemen like you. Saints have been canonized for embracing lesser penances than that.

Kelly--formerly a newsman, Senate staff assistant, speechwriter for Harry Truman--was the center's unofficial gatekeeper. He enjoyed the people who passed through, from barge-in nobodies to giants like Arnold Toynbee, William O. Douglas, Linus Pauling, Jacques Maritain and Michael Harrington whose achievements and visions were as towering as Eucalyptus Hill on which the center, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, rested.

Kelly's deeper exhilaration came from the permanent company at the center: the directors, resident fellows and the staff members who for 20 years made the operation a remarkable resource for democratic liberalism.

We know now that Kelly had still a third excitement: keeping notes on the goings and comings, storing information, remembering anecdotes and saving all the string of daily events to be entwined one day into this finely written history. America has never had a center of scholarship that brought together so many specialists in reason and idealism, and I can't imagine a clearer or more exhaustive account of its large contributions than Frank Kelly's book.

The kingly presence at this court was Robert Hutchins. He was the Yale Law School and University of Chicago educator who in 1954 succeeded future senator Clifford Case as president of the Fund for the Republic. The latter, begun two years earlier with $15 million provided by the Ford Foundation, was designed to be a wall to protect the civil liberties then under inflamed assault by heresy hunters and groups like the House Un-American Activities Committee. Kelly describes Hutchins: "He was a tall, ruggedly handsome man whose features conveyed a rather awesome dignity. He was aware of the impression he made on other people, and he habitually kept in check the inner rage and deep depression that gnawed at him. He wanted to change the world, and he found that the world was hard to change. He had reformed the Yale Law School, but he wasn't sure the reforms would last. He had remodeled the University of Chicago, but the university was already reverting to its old patterns."

Five years would pass before the Fund--by 1959 a respected and successful promoter of civil liberties--would move from New York to Santa Barbara. It established the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, to be known as a think tank in lay terms but in practice to be a meeting place for both thinkers and shapers of public policy who cared that their ideas be workable enough to have what Hutchins called "practical utility."

With figures like William O. Douglas serving as chairman of the center's board and W.H. Ferry, Harry Ashmore, John Cogley, Elisabeth Mann Borgese and Rexford Tugwell among the senior fellows, the center was supported by more than 100,000 paying members. Its critics were the predictable ones--the John Birch Society, Everett Dirksen--and the not so predictable: Joan Didion.

Kelly reports that between 1952 and 1977, the Fund and the Center received and spent about $42 million. Little of it was government or corporate money. Was it worth the cost, Kelly asks. "Undoubtedly," he answers, "some of the money . . . might have been put to better uses. But Admiral Hyman Rickover, who took part in several Center conferences and once donated $1,000 to help keep the Center going, told me that he thought the Center's budget was very small for an institution performing such a significant service. He referred to the billions he could easily get for nuclear submarines, and he said he thought that the Center's work was more vital for the future of humanity than submarines or other weapons."

Kelly is no blind glorifier. He details much of the bitterness in 1968 when the center was "reorganized" and several fellows were banished. It was a blemish on Hutchins' leadership that W.H. Ferry, one of the nation's liveliest minds and most passionate advocates for peace and social justice, was banished. Kelly remembers Hutchins in two lights: "That he managed to bring his vision of a community into being and to maintain it as an independent entity for 20 years is in itself a testament to his tenacity, resourcefulness and intellectual vigor. His tragedy, and that of the institution, was that he could not keep it free of the insidious factionalism, the warring ambitions, the overbearing obsessions, and the backbiting that afflict all human communities, no matter how lofty their ideals."

In 1979, two years after Hutchins' death, the Center--smaller, less noticed--was transferred to the University of California. Kelly's story ends there. But the example of the Hutchins-led Center endures. Nothing like it is on the scene today. Organizations like the American Enterprise Institute, which accepts money from six hundred corporate donors, are pretentious propagandists in comparison.