Those who knew Arthur Sylvester only from news reports about what he said and did as a government official might have thought ill of him.

Sylvester served as assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs under Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. This was during President John F. Kenndy's tenure.

It was in that period, you will recall, that our intelligence services discovered Soviet missiles being installed in Cuba. President Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba even as a convoy of Soviet ships headed straight toward the blockade line.

This was what was later described as an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, and it ended when the Russians were the first to blink.

During the hours in which war and peace hung in the balance, McNamara's public affairs assistant, Sylvester, was our government's principal conduit for disseminating information to reporters, also its principal spokesman for responding to questions.

When the crisis was over, Sylvester was charged by some newsmen with having lied to the press. Others put it more mildly and said he had been less than candid with reporters.

Sylvester's reply was that "the government has the right to lie" under some circumstances. In a congressional hearing that followed, he amplified on this opinion, saying "Obviously, no government information program can be based on lies; it must always be based on truthful facts. But when any nation is faced with nuclear disaster, you do not tell all the facts to the enemy."

Sylvester was roundly denounced for expressing these views. As I mentioned at the outset, those who knew only the two-dimensional official who appeared on TV screens and in newspaper pictures might have formed the impression that he was a menace to the Republic.

I am moved to offer testimony to the contrary by news of Sylvester's death on Friday.

Arthur Sylvester was a newspaperman, a thoroughgoing professional who was respected by his peers. He was a skilled craftsman and a reporter of scrupulous integrity.

The Newark News appointed him chief of its Washington bureau.It was a position of importance, but Sylvester remained as modest and self-effacing as before. He was ever polite, ever courteous, ever patient. His colleagues enjoyed his company and respected his accomplishments. They elected him to the board of governors of the National Press Club and to membership in the Gridiron Club.

In short, I can recall no other menace to the Republic who was such an upright, kindly and courtly gentleman. To those who criticized him for the out-of-context "right to lie" quotation, I suggest that this be a good moment to rethink the basic issue.

A reporter's responsibility is to seek out what his intelligence and conscience indicate is the truth, and to disseminate it. A government official's responsibility is to act in what his intelligence and conscience indicate are the best interests of the public. In most instances, respect for truth will be as much a part of the public official's responsibility as the reporter's. But one can easily conceive of a war-or-peace crisis in which it would be contrary to the best interests of the country for a president to reveal everything he knows. When that kind of situation arises, a soldier must choose between saying what he thinks is true and saying what his commander-in-chief tells him to say.

The choice is not always easy, especially for a former reporter who had it drilled into him from Day 1 that in his profession, integrity is everything.

Nevertheless, a reporter who has been drafted to serve as a spokesman for his country must learn some new lessons. The first of them is that when nuclear war is imminent, a nation's first priority must be survival. RING OUT THE OLD

In this final column of 1979, I would like to express my thanks to the many volunteers who have been helping raise money for Children's Hospital.

In every neighborhood in our area, men and women are going from door to door to spread the word about "the hospital with the built-in deficit." I raise my hat to them and hope that the new year is as kind to them as they are being to needy children.

Thinks, too, to the broadcasters who have been helping out -- youngsters like Eddie Gallaher, who may have a future in radio some day, and those two newcomers, Harden and Weaver, who have been auditioning for about 80 years in the hope of landing something regular. Most of all, though, I hope Scott Chase has a good year. If he doesn't raise $250,000 for the children, he's going to be hard to live with for the next 11 months. If you haven't allready sent him your check, today's the perfect day to do it. Thank you.

And a happy new year to you all.