"I was a little bit surprised," Robert C. Maynard said, recalling his recent appointment as editor of the Oakland Tribune.

"But you should never be surprised if your dreams come true."

In this case, however, one man's dream has considerable historical significance. Maynard, 42, is the first black to direct the editorial operations of a major American daily.

Bouncing about his hotel suite the other day when he was here to speak to the National Association of Black Journalists, he seemed unruffled by the hoopla surrounding his appointment of almost a month. He's still the suave figure who moved through sophisticated Washington circles for more than a decade, still able to add spice to a tweed jacket just with his personal flair.

His smoky voice and eloquence lift the spirits of friends and disarm opponents. His hunched shoulder swagger, a hip, big city strut from his youthful days in Brooklyn, telegraphs his brimming confidence.

The realization of his dream makes Maynard a kind of Frank Merriwell hero among blacks, who've found the doors of metropolitan dailies only slightly ajar. More than a decade after the civil rights victories of the 1960s, minorities make up only 4 percent of newsroom employees. That adds up to 1,700 workers.

"I guess my appointment must've raised the number in the managerial ranks 30 or 40 points," he said with a sradonic smile.

The people of Oakland, says the new editor, are taking the appointment in stride. "They say it's about time," he noted.

After all, the largely blue collar city of 333,055 (54 percent minority), which sits across the bay in the shadow of San Francisco, has a black mayor, black school superintendent, black port commissioner and black symphony conductor.

"I'm pretty far down the list of seniority -- all a black editor can do is get in line," quipped Maynard, who worked for The Washington Post from 1967 to 1977 as the newspaper's first black national correspondent and subsequently as ombudsman and an editirial writer.

Few journalists, black or white, would probably covet the challenge Maynard faces in turning around the Tribune, a paper that was described several years ago as "sailing gracefully into the mud."

Once known as the voice for the conservative Republican politics of the Knowland family, the paper in the last two years has been sold twice, simultaneously chewing up and spitting out three editors. Its circulation, once over the 200,000 mark, is stuck at 167,000. And the demoralized staff has been cut from 151 to 130 in the last year.

"We've been through so many changes lately," lamented one staffer. "Each new guy comes in and carves up the office differently, tearing down walls and putting up partitions. The people who move furniture don't have to worry about jobs."

Maynard's task is to move the paper's primary focus from establishment projects such as the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, the Oakland Museum and the Oakland International Airport to concerns with poverty, the growing inner-city minority population and mostly white suburbs.

"Looking ahead, I would hope the newspaper could be a credible rallying point for the whole East Bay, responsive to the people and their various needs," he said in the deep, dulcet tones that many people find so persuasive.

"We do have a game plan. The essence of it is that we want to put out a much richer news package, an easier newspaper for people to read. We've got to get a handle on how you cover that spectrum from the upper middle class in Walnut Creek to blue collar Oakland."

Already he has instituted a weekly Letter from the Editor column in the Sunday Insight section. "It's like an ombudsman column," he explained. "I write about the problems of the news business, and I've solicited suggestions from readers. They've responded by the ton."

The first mark he made on the sports department was to order it to cover a black tennis tournament in adjoining Berkeley.

Maynard seems well prepared to lead the Tribune into greener pastures. Before coming to The Post, he worked at the York (Pa.) Gazette as police reporter, urban affairs writer and night city editor. He also spent a year at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow.

He's also directed the Berkeley-based Summer Program for Minority Journalists, an annual training session designed to prepare and find employment for young non-white newspaper reporters.

Most recently, he has served as affirmative action consultant for the Gannett newspaper chain.

His chance to take the helm of the Tribune came when Gannett decided to purchase the ailing daily. Following the suicide of owner and former Republican Sen. William F. Knowland in 1974, the paper was sold to Combine Communications, Inc., in 1977. Gannet bought Combine.

"I asked John C. Quinn (Gannett senior vice president) if I have a hand in running the paper, and he said okay," Maynard said, tugging his beard.

"I must confess I was wary taking over a paper in mid-cycle. We literally came in between editions."

Through his connection with the summer program, Maynard has carried on a love affair with Bay Area for several years.

"Oakland is a city with one of the most stunning futures in the country," the editor said. "The problem of school desegregation has been dealt with and the residential neighborhoods are more integrated than in most cities."

And he likes the city's open spaces. "I lost 30 pounds last summer, jogging around Lake Merritt," he chuckled.

He and his wife, Nancy Hicks, a former correspondent of The New York Times, have set up houskeeping in Oakland and will rent their house here.

The son of a Brooklyn businessman who was a part-time preacher, Maynard has some of his father's sense of mission.

Speaking at the Black Journalists' conference he said, "Our job as minority journalists is to change the way America perceives blacks. We are not just a pathological fragment, a social problem.

"Our goal is to change the managerial complexion of U.S. newpapers. But that means we may have to change our attitudes about the need to move to managerial opportunities. I run into a lot of people who say they want to go into management, but they want to do it within a 35-mile radius of New York City or Washington!

"We've got to be willing to move to Elgin, Ill., or Oakland. There will be change."