In the middle of a corridor, in the middle of the Executive Inn Rivermont, Cloris Leachman ambushes Clark Clifford, and blushingly imparts to him her latest dream. She's thinking about going to law school.

"Do it," Clifford advises heartily. He gazes warmly down at the actress who is dressed entirely in purest white - white blouse, long white skirt - and white sneakers to match. "Do it. Even if you don't get into it, you'll never regret it."

The actress gazes back, just as warmly. "Oh I can tell. The training you receive in law - it's the warp and woof of you, isn't it?"

Clifford beams back a silent knowledgement.

Meanwhile 20 Hopes of Tomorrow, graduating high school seniors from all over, none of them a shade over 18, surround the two stars, their eyes shining with a special fervor, their little autograph books open to a virgin page.

Thrilling to her new audience, the actress continues: "All the happy people I know are happy in the work they're doing. Like - well, like Tom Sawyer with the whitewashed fence. I'd be happy doing anything! Anything! Cleaning out toilets!"

Clifford's smile fades just a tad. "Exactly, exactly." Every day, Clark Clifford says, Clark Clifford performs the most difficult chores first.

"My marriage was the most difficult problem for me," Leachmen offers brightly. "I worked the hardest on that and didn't get anything else done. So - we decided to get a divorce. That helps."

The Hopes of Tomorrow look surprised. They have come to Owensboro, honor students and symbols of excellence, to hear about striving, about achievement, about inspiration from the stars. This doesn't sound too inspiring.

Clifford adopts a vague and distant look.

But the actress takes no notice. "I'm also a helper" she says, smiling steadily. "I love being helpful with people. Especially people with pimples and fat people."

Her bright blue eyes scan the young crowd. "And I can see I've got a lot of people to help here," she says merrily. "A lot of pimple people."

Twenty young faces droop in unison.

It is called the American Academy of Achievement; their 17th annual Salute to Excellence described as "A Gathering of the Greats." Debby Boone, singer, with her newly permed hair, Howard Jarvis, ornery Jockey Steve Cauthen, the new object of mini-lust among schoolgirls; CIA Director Stansfield Turner; FBI Director William Webster; Col. Harland Sanders at 87; a 12-year-old genius enrolled in pre-law and pre-med at the University of Southern California; Edward Asner, who came originally because Cloris Leachman told him to; Olivia de Havilland who arrived because Judge John Sirica asked her to; John Sirica who was there because Leon Jaworski once asked him to come: Helen Hayes, because "Brian Reynolds is a very persuasive man, as you know."

All these people came to the flat, bedraggled town of Owensboro, Ky., for three days of inspiration. All these people and more - many of whom had never heard (as most people in this world have not) of the American Academy of Achievement, of Brian Reynolds and his Dream.

"We're the greatest secret in America," mourns Reynolds, a short pudgy may of 62 who dreamed the original Dream 17 long years ago only to get "kicked in the face," only to go "through all the sufferings." Brian Reynolds' dream, for which he went broke, "which may have killed my wife," which he conceived when he was photographer for Life magazine, was simply this: "To erect a Mount Olympian Gathering of the Gods of Achievement once a year to meet the greatest young achievers of the country."

There are tears in Reynolds eyes as he recounts the agony and the ecstasy of his dream, his plate of food untouched and growing cold. "Those young achievers," he says, referring to the 370 students gathered at the Kentucky hotel, "they will have the most inspiring, the most unforgettable moment of their lives right here.

"We will change their lives. If they live to be a hundred they'll never, never, NEVER have such unforgettable moment. Hardly."

Reynolds swallows hard. He invited Jimmy Carter this year, but Carter did not come. Never mind. Dallas coach Tom Landry and two Nobel prize winners happily accepted his invitation to come to Owensboro, Ky., of all places?" Because it so happens that a certain Robert E. Green owns the hotel where the Academy guests are all staying here. And Robert E. Green (who just happened to be one of the Olympian Gods of Achievement back in '68) is guaranteeing the sum of $40,000 to the Academy this year.

So Brian Reynolds considers himself a man of achievement. "There is only one thing I haven't achieved," he says sadly. "The Window of America isn't opened on us. I mean television - network television. The Open Window which would allow 30, 40, 60 MILLION PEOPLE TO BE THRILLED OUT OF THEIR SHOES AS THEY WATCH THIS TRIBUTE TO THE GREATEST ACHIEVERS OF THE WORLD."

He swallows once more - hard. There is a long silence. When next he speaks, it is a choked whisper, his eyes still dewy. "You see, I can't talk any more."

Stansfield Turner, one of the gods of achievement this year, is here because Judge John Sirica, one of the gods of achievement last year, asked him to come. The CIA director, seated before his beef-and-potato dinner, flashes his best Navy-recruiting smile at the three California young achievers across from him, allowing it to settle finally on a high-school graduate whose name-tag reads "Cassandra Shafer, Student Leader of the Year."

"They call you Cassie or "Cassandra" asks the CIA director.

"Cassandra," the girl replies archly, "they call you Stansfield or Stan?"

"Stan," replies the CIA director, clearly taken aback.

"Except his mother," offers Turner's wife, "his mother calls him Stansfield."

Judge Frank Johnson, another of this year's honorees, drops his fork to ask the girl if she realizes she is talking to the CIA director.

"Oh MY GOSH," squeals the stricken Cassandra, appalled at her jaax pas . Her tone turns conciliatory. "I always liked the CIA. Ever since I read 'Mrs. Pollifax, the Spy'."

The talk gradually turns to other things: to the concept of racial equality - Turner asks the students if they think it exists in the United States; to Judge Johnson who quotes the Rev. Jesse Jackson: "Jackson said, 'From now on, it's up to you.' I certainly agree." And finally - to the problems in black education:

"It sort of feeds on itself," says Turner. "They don't have a lot of educated people, they don't have an esteem for education they don't have a background for it."

Cassandra's eyes search the huge ballroom. "There certainly are very few blacks around the room," she says.

Earlier in the conversation, Turner offers the young achievers a little explanation of how the CIA works: "In addition to spying, we have to take the products of spying and understand it."

"I didn't think the head of the CIA would go around saying the word 'spy'." marvels a young man named Brad. "It kind of has a bad connotation about it."

"I want to be a spy," says Cassandra, smiling.

"Cassandra," says Judge Johnson. "You just wiped yourself out with that 'Stan' business."

The first night in Owensboro, right before dinner, Brian Reynolds reads the young achievers the riot act. Aside from no liquor, aside from the total segregation of the sexes with regard to hotel accomodations (Boys are not allowed on the girl's floors: or vice versa) - aside from all this, Reynolds told them one other thing.

Any "impertinent" questions to the honored guests, and the young achievers would be sent home on the next plane. "If you want to be Watergate reporters, move to Washington," said Reynolds.

For three days many of the students complained about these remarks. They, after all, feel that as young achievers, they should be treated with respect.

"He called us 'youngsters'," Shanita Spencer ("Girl Student of the Year," Ralston, Neb.) reports. "It made me feel like I had no judgement. As if I wasn't old enough to have any self control. I was quite insulted."

"Youngsters," a young man from Bismarck, N.D., echoes scornfully. "They never let you forget it."

But there was more to come.

"I was just threatened with expulsion," says Michael Froomkin, a presidential scholar from Washington. He had tried, at lunch, to sit at Howard Jarvis' table, thereby stretching fire regulation capacity to beyond the allotted number. He said Reynolds had shooed him away with that dire threat.

But the young achievers are enjoying themselves immensely. "All this inspiration," sighs an enchanted soul, "You can feel it dripping off the walls."

"So tell me," 1974 Nobel Peace prize winner Sean MacBride of Ireland addresses Col. Sanders' grandson, "So tell me, Harland: Suppose I manage to get the special recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken - could I then sell it?"

Sean MacBride, the 74-year-old founder of Amnesty International, whom Yeats taught to fly a kite, who was jailed at 14, who was the IRA chief of staff in '35 - has been utterly fascinated by Kentucky Fried Chicken ever since he tasted in on Friday night, his beautiful, parchment-white head bowed over a crispy brown chicken breast.

"I absolutely adore it," he announces in one of his few pleased statements in Owensboro, for he is not very happy with his fellow honorees - some of whom sound very rightwing to him.

But he does love. Col. Sanders' chicken.

"Mr. MacBride," the Colonel's grandson informs the elegant old man. "You could never duplicate our chicken. It's a patented process made with 11 herbs and spices, real eggs and not plain old flour - it's pastry flour.

"However," he says laughing. "If you want our recipe, I'll give it to you." The 46-year-old grandson who wears a gold wishbone for a necklace then proceeds to recount to the Nobel prize winner the difficult saga of the chicken business. "It hasn't been all gravy," he sums up.

The Colonel, himself, has astounded the local franchise in this town of about 50,000 by appearing personally to check up on chicken. That night hundreds of people gobble up the results under a huge tent on businessman Green's estate which bears a brick home described by one impertinent student as "Contemporary Civil War."

Terrifying screams erupt as one by one the stars arrive on the property: Edward Asner, Steve Cauthen, even tiny Mariel Aragon, the 12-year-old college genius who is mobbed by autograph hounds six years her senior. The little girl sighs heavily, shaking out her hand: "Writer's cramp," she explains laconically.

"Debby! Debby!" yells a sarooonic Sean MacBride as a frizzy-haired woman makes her entrance. "Sing! Sing! chants the audience.

Debby Boone shakes her head. She hasn't come prepared. The crowd is obstinate. The band strikes up. "You Light My Life," Debby Boone tries valiantly.

What comes out is a weak warble. The band is playing too high.

She tries again. Another Warble. The band is too low.

She tries a cappella. Better, this time.

A young man raises his hand during question time.

"Yes?" she smiles encouragingly.

"Can I buy you a glass of milk later tonight?" asks the boy with a smirk.

"Impertinent!" came cries from the audience.

The business-type neo-Horatio Alger speeches: gods of achievement stand before the students, in their sober suits ready with "I arrived with very little personal wealth . . .Sure that was a dirty, scruffy job with the oil refinery, but I did it with enthusiasm. I worked with enthusiasm. In two months I was promoted to research engineer. I never expect to take a backseat to anyone for enthusiasm in approach to a project"

Fred Hartley, head of Union Oil of California:

"My story is really the story of America which has been told a thousand times over. I had an immigrant father from Greece who came here on the railroad and worked for 50 cents a day . . . Some years ago I went (to Greece) to his home and saw a little rock house and it made me realize what one education and one generation can do because my wife and I live in a very nice house in Houston"

George Mitchell, head of Mitchell Energy and Development Corp.

"We act in California like all the fish and whales are wearing diapers, we're trying to make our water so pure -"

Fred Hartley

There are students downright angry with the businessmen. "Doesn't Hartley realize we're living in a finite universe?" demands one of them. A lot of the students shrug off the words to Kentucky's Sen. Wendell Ford ("Not many people in this country walked behind a double shovel for 50 cents a day. I took a littel brown bag and drank out of the clear spring.")

"If, say, Col. Sanders started a little restaurant today," says Steve Conyne, a National merit scholar from North Dakota," he'd be wiped out by the franchises."

Excerpt from a student's parody of the businessmen speeches;

"In the Time magazine profile on me when I was Man of the Year, I think it was put most felicitously,and I quote: 'Adolph Parsnip XVI lives by one principle: GET AHEAD.' In the great American spirit of free enterprise, so far I've killed 17 business opponents. How does thi apply to you? If you want to stay on top, to retain this position of achievement you have already attained - CONGRESS MUST BE ABOLISHED: (planned pause for applause . . .)"

Anyway, some of the students are tired of achieving.Or, at least, they're tired of being told to. They have come here, National Merit Scholars, prize orators, presidential scholars. Quill and Scroll champs, sponsored by Readers Digest (a big Academy patron) or the DAR or industry or whatever - and almost everyone here - from Judge Sirica to Gen. Omar Bradley in his wheelchair - is trying to inspire them. And they just don't feel entirely ready for all this inspiration.

"Everybody is asking us, what we're going to end up doing," says Shanita Spencer. "I'd like to take a year off before college. But I walways feel I have just one chance. They tell you, 'You only have this one chance and you'll never have it again.'"

And one VFW "Voice of Democracy" winner, says. "There's a lot of false stuff here. If this was really the Academy of Achievement, there'd be a lot fewer people here. Maybe five." He won his title by writing a radio script on his responsibility toward America.

"I was writing to win," he says bluntly. "I don't believe very strongly in my responsibility toward America. Man and God, but not necessarily America - so I kind of changed the theme." There's just one thing he's slightly embarrassed about. "I wrote I'd die for my country, and I don't mean that. I wouldn't die for my country."

She wants to be the first woman president of the United States. By law she has to wait 23 years to realize her ambition.

Calmly she rises, 4 feet 7 inches of her, a tiny doll in a stiff, full crimson party dress and matching knee socks and little white shoes, to tell us about it in poised, fluid tones:

"I truly hope this country is ready for the first woman president by the time I try," says 12-year-old Mariel Aragon, a college sophomore, "and no earlier."

She goes on. Life is a challenge. Her IQ? "Okay, at the age of 8 I had 156 IQ. Now the university (of Southern California) thinks it about 180."

Her senior prom?

"The heck with it, I didn't have a date; maybe that's one of the reasons I didn't go."

Her mother, Mila Aragon, rises next, tears streaming down her cheeks, overcome by the fact that she is here, transported (along with Debby Boone) by the private jet of J. Robert Fluor, an industralist who will also be honored.

"I warn you," Mila Aragon, tells the assembled "I'm the dummy . . . What I want to tell you is that Mariel is a child at heart. People ask me if I am proud. The word is not proud necessarily. I'm frightened. And I think you can tell that right now. I never can tell what happens from day to day.

"When she skipped grade school - okay. Junior high - okay. But high school - I though I'd get a heart attack."

If you're wondering how Brian Reynolds manages to get all these famous people down to Owensboro this year, or Orlando, Fla., last year or Philadelphia seven years ago - Well . . . So is everybody else, including a number of honorees. Brian Reynolds is very open about his methods:

"Take Clark Clifford," he says, "A very busy man. We have Judge John Sirica sign the letter of invitation: 'Dear Clark, this inspiring event awaits you. Hope you will be there with me.' For the Nobel honorees we have Dr. Edward Teller. . ."

Not that Teller's name is magic to every Nobel winner. Physicist Philip Anderson of Princeton and Bell Labs (whose letter was signed by the head of AT&T, among others) found himself receiving the Academy's highest award - the Golden Plate - on the last night from the hands of Edward Teller.

"It is no secret," said Anderson drily, "that I'm not very happy with Teller."

And if you're wondering why so many businessmen have been honored through the years, Brian Reynolds will tell you how wrong you are for presuming they've been invited to tap them for money to fund his $300,000, non-profit operation.

"Your phrasing is wrong and a little unfair," he says. "Let's say there's this hospital for crippled children and they've got enough money to run the operation - wouldn't they be fools and blind if they didn't find new money?"

According to Reynolds' son Wayne, some of the big sponsors of the Academy are Readers Digest, AT&T, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, beyond that, Pau Smucker (of jam and jelly fame) supports it and Paul Anka, W.W. Clements of Dr. Pepper and Stephen Bechtel of the Bechtel group of companies, among others, are all listed as major or executive sponsors. Reynolds receives $47,000 in salary from the Academy.

"I'm so impressed," murmurs Helen Hayes, as she listens to one of their number. "I'm so impressed with the captains of industry. You may not agree with them, but they're clear-thinking."

Hayes comes back year after year, as does Cloris Leachman ("Look at all these kids I have to inspire!"), Edward Teller and Paul Smucker, who hands out little business cards with strawberries on them. But no one is higher on the Academy than John Sirica honored last year and co-chairman this year. He gets up there and tells the students how he dropped out of law school, how he wanted to be a boxer . . . "And then I usually say, 'If Sirica made it, you can to.' I like to feel these youngsters out. They're the trustees of our posterity."

But there are others here who find the event a little curious: so many disparate and unconnected stimuli, so many Polonian calls for inspiration mixed in with real fervor. So many famous faces that Brian Reynolds plucks like a gardener in an eternally blooming hot-house.

What is this thing? What is the real meaning of achievement, anyway? In Brian Reynolds' view, a summit of achievement appears at the Banquet of the Golden Plate.

The banquet takes place on the last night of the event - a 1250-person affair, full of overdone roast beef and iced tea and no salt on many tables since the Inn has run out. About 500 locals have come in, persuaded by businessman Green to pay $100 a plate. Several of them appear to be falling asleep of achievement speak for their golden plates.

The local public TV camera is whirring; 40 specially honored students are repeating (for the second time that day) their heartfelt thanks. It will be a very long night. A group of young achievers will get into a heated argument with Howard Jarvis. A large number of the trustees of posterity will stay up all night, swimming, flirting and ignoring quite a few rules.

Finally the end and the climax of the evening arrives: Danny Scholl, Handicapped American of 1970. He tells us the story of his strokes, and then launches into song: The Impossible Dream, which is the Academy's theme song.

"Look!" whispers Mial Aragon, pointing to a dais. "My daughter - Look! She's crying."

And sure enough, the 12-year-old genius is sobbing openly over "The Impossible Dream," wiping away tears.

Brian Reynolds can scarcely talk.