Tall, lanky Ben Pagh, from Sheffield, Ala., was talking about how it is - to be a has-been at 18. He slouched on the sidewalk of the Sheraton-Park Hotel, where 2,300 teen-agers were gathered for the Key Club International convention.

Pagh joined as a freshman, "for social acceptance and to get my picture in the annual." But after four years as a Key Clubber and two International conventions, he still only had made lieutenant governor of his home district, which is good but not good enough, he thought, in this passle of well-scrubed achievers.

And now, he mourned, he was reduced to being a friend's campaign manager. "My biggest regret is that I didn't run for international office sooner - say district governor or even international president.

"I would have enjoyed Key Club more from a higher level," he said. "But I am up for one award." He smiled forlornly.

Sunday night, hundreds of wholesome teen-agers, all members of Key Club International, the largest high school service organization in the world with 88,000 members in 3,300 clubs in eight nations, gathered around the elevators, waiting to go up to the first of three gala evenings.

That night, the theme for the year, dreamed up by the club's national officers, was to be unveiled, and the crowd hummed with anticipation. The scene was like a pep rally organized in the fashion of the Democratic National Convention, each district sitting together, banners held high.

"Here we go Georgia, here we go."

"We're number one, we're number one."

"O-hi-o, O-hi-o, O-hi-o."

On stage, the 17-year-old elected officials, "the cream of the corp," "the leaders of tomorrow," "the dnynamic promise of the future," directed the evening and delivered addresses.

William H. Songer - President Billy - the head of Key Club International, a confident speaker who looks like a cross betweef Beaver and Dennis the Menace, chaired the meeting. Earlier, he had discussed today's youth, what is important in life, and his own future.

"We want to prove that there are young people who care. There's so much cynicism now - all the demonstrations and rallies - we want to show our elders that they can believe in young people.

"I've grown to believe in people and the power of kindness - two or three words, a gesture to someone unhappy can build him up. I know I sound corny, but it's true. Single people can change destiny and all that stuff."

Songer, who hopes to get his MBA and go into business management, has enjoyed politics in the Key Club, but has no interest in national office, citing the loss of privacy due to media scrutiny.

President Billy said he hoped that this convention would be "the best behaved ever." Then he introduced the head of the committee that drew up the convention code of conduct. The audience was voiceless as he read off the list: no alcohol or drugs, 1 a.m. curfew, no objects thrown from the windows, no gambling or fireworks, coat and tie for males, dresses for females.

The audience didn't peep at any of these don'ts. But when he announced, "No females shall be allowed in the room of any male Key Clubber and no male may be in the room of any female Key Clubber," the audience booed vehemently.

The inevitable convention humorist, in this case Grady Nutt, spoke next. Most notably a guest star of Hee Haw, Nutt delivered a few line. One of the more memorable jokes was about the brassiere factory in his home town of Jacksonville, Tex. The punch line: We fix flats. He concluded with the story of the Good Samaritan, the role model for all Key Clubbers.

The primary goal of the Key Club is to help the needy. Among the projects individuals told about were holding car washes to raise money for the March of Dimes, taking orphans to baseball games, mowing, weeding and trimming the yard of the neighborhood church, launching anti-cheating campaigns in the schools, and escorting handicapped children to the zoo.

Women have only been members of the Key Club for the past two years. In 1977, the ACLU threatened to sue under the 14th Amendment, and Key Club went coes. Keyettes became Key Clubbers.

Next year's Key Club International theme, revealed as the culmination of the evening, encourages the members to continue their good works.

The theme: Share Togetherness.

After the presentation, Barbara Hammel, president of a club in New Jersey, discussed what her club hoped to accomplish in the coming year.

From across the floor, a young man called out cheerily, "Hey Barbara, you want to share some togetherness in my room later on?She ignored him.

The next evening, the Key Clubbers enthusiastically poured into the auditorium once more, where D. Michael Broome, director of The Center for the Study of Motivation, addressed the rowdy crowd. An athletic and impassioned speaker, Broome told the audience that love was the answer, spelling out the word by putting his body through a set of gymnastic contortions. The Key Clubbers screamed out each letter as he made it - L-O-V-E.

While the crowd cheered, two girls from a Northern club lounged on blue velvet couches in the bathroom.

"How long is this program going to last?" asked o."

"I'm bored," said the other.

Back in the auditorium, Broome made a rousing finish to his speech. "Each of you has the ability to change someone else's life. The best way to enrich your life is to enrich the lives of others." He received two standing ovations.

On each of the evenings of the convention - Sunday, Monday and Tuesday - each of the 30 Key Club districts caucused. Each of the candidates for an international office in each caucus underwent what could be called trial by trivia.

The grillings have the trappings of a fraternity initation: like pledges, they must prove their knowledge of the organizations and suffer a certain amount of humiliation.

The final gala evening of the convention was to be a fun night for all. The program featured entertainment in the shape of a rock-disco band called White Heat and a talent show starring members of Key Club.

The talent show acts ranged from the religious to the suggestive. The group Heritage provided gospel sound, singing "Yes I'll rise again/Death can't keep me in the ground." Two brothers from Houston serenaded the audience with Spanish songs. And a young girl from Gainesville, Texas, dressed in a black leotard and sheer black tights, her blond pony tail bobbling, shook her hips, kicked her legs and wriggled her torso to the disco beat.

And then White Heat came on and the trouble began.

The pants of the three lead singers - all male - were painted on in gaudy colors: violet, lemon yellow and lime green. And all they wore up top were little bitty vests.

They sang a couple of raucous tunes, doing their best to imitate Elvis's pelvic thrust, during which a few Kiwanians (they sponsor the Key Club) got up and left.

But at that point, most of the kids were still enjoying the show.

One of the singers said, in one of their little skits, "My girlfriend - she has the biggest . . . lemons." At which point another band member came on the stage with two enormous oranges under his shirt.

"Go for it!" screamed one part of the audience. A few boos were discernible.

The next skit turned the audience against White Heat. This time a singer came out in a bikini bathing suit, posing as a homosexual football player named Bruiser. His football jersey bore the number 69.

"Did you score in your game?" someone asked Bruiser.

"Did I score!" he answered, wiggling his behind.

A part of the audience chanted, "Fag-got, fag-got, fag-got." But more just booed and hissed.

After the act was over, the emcee came onto the stage, stunned, and apologized on behalf of the Key Club International Board for the entertainment. It seems their scheduled act had canceled and they had hired White Heat on the advice of friends.

But the shock of White Heat was quickly assuaged by Susan Horvath, America's Junior Miss, who graciously presented the talent show awards, never mentioning the fiasco which had preceded her.

She walked through the audience on president Billy's arm, smiling triumphantly, wiping out the memory of the band.

President Billy present her with roses and leaned over to respectfully kiss her on the cheek.

"I have never seen so much energy, electricity and brightness in one group.

"You are the achievers, the doers, the thinkers. She said, You are the generation I glow about." And the Key crowd roared. CAPTION: Picture, Delegates from Montana at the Key Club convention; by John McDonnell - The Washington Post