Growing up in Samoa and North Carolina, and Newport and California and Hawaii and I believe New York, or perhaps it was the Philadelphia Navy Yard, James Hester wished to become a writer, possibly to make some sense of geographical confusion.

But he had no faith he could actually feed himself by scribble, scribble all the day, so he prepared himself for an academic job, which meant getting degrees, and - to be brief about it - the tail began to wag the dog, as it were, and the writer part of his soul lost out.

He became president of New York University at the age of 37 and (unless interdepartmental memoranda be literature) has not written a word since.

"I was happy in New York," he said yesterday while on a visit down here to wring money out of Congress, "with my wife and children in a fine penthouse on Washington Square."

It was nice being President of NYU because the corporations and all the alumni were right there and he didn't have to race all over the world like most college presidents.

And then he got around to being 50 and felt 14 years was enough for Washington Square:

"But at 50 you're not old, not ready to retire, and you still think you want a challenge - what's a word for challenge that doesn't sound so dumb? - so I was ripe for considering the offer of the new United Nations University."

That is how he became president of UNU in Tokyo, and he was here drumming on the Congress because the United States is dragging, in its financial support.

"When we asked for the $10 million in election year, Ronald Reagan was prominent and one man in Washington told me, 'There are just two things wrong for your request for money for the United Nations University. One, United Nations, and two, university.'"

As everyone recalls, those were good days for getting money to burn coyote pups out of their dens - or any other project that sounded stout-hearted and stalwart and pioneerish and rough.

The university, since some have not heard of it, is less like a regular college (sex, beer barrels, and two bright instructors new to academe and therefore galvanic) and more like a think tank of a curious sort, in which they not merely ponder imponderables but grab hold of everything that's gone awry and show how to right it.

Solar energy, food supplies (40 percent of the food in some countries is wasted through bad storage, and a train 3,000 miles long would be needed to haul the grain the rats eat every year in India), development of economics, societies - these are great (if breathtaking) riddles and Hester's university proposes to grapple.

The university does not so much send expertise from America to show the poor folk how to do things right, as to marshal the intellectual forces within a country to do its own thinking and solving.

The United Nations itself, which many pie-sky types thought would be a noble discourse of reason amongst men, etc., is of course a political organization and nations meet there commonly in an adversary stance. The Russians say zip and the West says zap and each is annoyed with the obtuseness of the other.

But the United Nations University, Hester went on, is to be that true forum, of ideas, wrangled forth in courtesy and with brains, that a political arena cannot be.

The university was perhaps chiefly an American dream, but it was introduced by U Thant in 1969. The government of Japan came up with initial millions and a headquarters site in Tokyo, and since then the pledges and contributions have mounted to $126 million. Seventeen governments (Zaire $100,000; Cyprus $1,282) are giving annnually to the operating budget. Nothing from the United States.

Dr. Hester hopes to correct that. The university has an elaborate machinery to guarantee academic freedom, in publishing reports, in choosing projects to work on, in selecting institutions to work with. To escape the buffets of political passion, the university seeks an ultimate endowment of $500 million, and American support is deemed crucial.

Hester drinks Cokes to help (he believes) his jet lag. In the last three weeks he has left Tokyo and done university works in Sri Lanka, New Delhi, Qatar, Algeria, Geneva, Paris, Brussels, New York and Washington.

It's Friday so it can't be Oslo. That kind of schedule.

As this blue-eyed, Coke-drinking, gray-haired engine zooms about, it revs into high as it nears the hills of international insights. Hester can hardly abide the slowness of speech and the shortness of time as he races through the catalogue of examples - how no other institution affords anything like the same intellectual clearing-house with anything like the same ability to assist in (for example) practical technology and (if you allow the expression) practical philosophy for nations short on cash, short on fossil fuels, short on encouragement and confidence, but long on possibilities and good local brains.

In India you can't spread Warfarin at random to kill the rats, but you can have a rattery where acceptable (to the Indians) rat control is worked out. You can't decide for the Indians how solar energy will cook their food - they cook at night when the sun is off - but you can study how their own ways can be helped by solar technology.

In Jamaica researchers are working on protein-energy balances among young children in two poor countries; in Thailand they are studying chronic infections and how these relate to protein; in Korea they study the effect of internal parasites in the human body - what these do to proteins that are eaten.

Hester will go on for quite a spell at 9,600 words a minute about specifics if he thinks you really want to know. He will summarize his own life in one very long sentence if you let him - school in California, then Princeton, then Oxford (Pembroke College) and Japanese language school in World War II and democratization duty in Japan thereafter, then the Pentagon, then advertising, then Long Island University, then NYU followed shortly by its presidence, then Tokyo.

He guesses his life in small-town North Carolina helped him in what he hopes was a leadership role in integrating blacks into higher education of NYU. He guesses his five years in the Marines taught him a few things. And Samoa - O beautiful island of palm trees - and Margaret Mead (whom he met later) and Oxford, and his father being a Navy chaplain and his mother's family being missionaries to Turkey, all these things, he reckons, made him think the world was an international place.

As a young fellow he liked Dostoyevsky and Thomas Wolfe. (Only a Tar Hell, some might say, would pair the two, but he treasures those boyhood years in the boondocks.)

His wiffe grinds sticks of ink and paints pine beedles and bamboos. She studies the ceramics of Japan. The cultures change, the years speed by. Hester insists on seeing the Taj Mahal at sunrise, as well as in moonlight. There is time for that. There is damn well time for that.

Not a writer, no. Not every dream comes true. Hardly any does. But the first light on Jehan's dome, that makes up for a dream or two. To run a university, and now another noe, that's something. He gets excited when he speaks of a solar village in Algeria. He gets excited fast, he gets all-absorbed (he does not see the photographer leaving, as a politician would) in studies about drought prevention and why existing knowledge is not used.

He has to go somewhere else. He is obedient to his schedule, as soldiers are to death. He is not going to see the light of morning on the marble dome today - that was in Agra, and this is Washington.

He has a handful of minutes to reach the whole capital and he wants money for his institution and understanding even more than money. He is certain everyone would light up at what his university is doing if there were time enough to go into many aspects and many details.

Ahead of him is the task of persuading Congress. Tomorrow to New York. Wednesday to Kyoto, that other capital, more ancient. He thinks he will see cherry trees in bloom there, and hear the wind in the little bronze bells of the temple eaves.

As he approaches middle age (as a wag once said of the American male's middle 50s) the poets could tell him there will not be world enough or time. But he would never believe them.