When he was growing up and the summer came, Rosey Grier worked at a dump, then a used-car lot, then sold newspapers.

"Were those jobs critical?" he asked last night at a reception to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the $745 million Summer Youth Employment Program. "They were so critical that if I didn't have them I didn't have clothes."

Along with nearly 300 others, the former football star came to the Kennedy Center to eat, drink and cheer on the Department of Labor's program to employ one million 14- to 21-year-olds during the summer, a program that was started in 1965 under Lyndon Johnson.

The invited guests -- Comprehensive Employment Training Act Program organizers from around the country, business people who have worked with the program and an assortment of government types -- milled around while singers sang and presentations were made.

And some reminisced about their own summers past.

"I wasn't exactly typical," said Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall. "I was raised in an orphanage, and was out on my own when I was 14, so my first job was a full-time job working in a dental laboratory. I told them I was 16, and they hired me."

Liz Carpenter, assistant secretary of education for public affairs and a White House staff member under Johnson, spent her early summers "teaching in a Bible school and then at a girl scout camp. Can you believe it? It's been a long time."

"I did lawns," said Willard Wirtz, secretary of labor under Johnson and the first secretary to administer the program.

"Lawns and a lot of other dead-end jobs -- in the summers and since.

"When we started this program, we were just fiddling," he said. "It's really turned into something now, but I still believe this kind of thing should be coming from the communities and from the kids, too."

On stage, singers Freeman King and Kent Perkins were entertaining the crowd, while Perkins' wife, comedienne Ruth Buzzi, was yukking it up in the audience and talking about her father's business.

"I worked for my father sculpting trees" she said. "Trees on the grounds of Buzzi Monuments in Connecticut." Fran Cipriani, a Buzzi fan standing nearby waiting to say hello, screamed, "I live next door to Buzzi Monuments. nIt's a landmark."

Others in the crowd included about 15 National Football League players. The league organizes summer camps for kids in conjunction with the Department of Labor, and the players included the Redskins' Dave Butz, the Oakland Raiders' Gene Upshaw, Baltimore's Mac Alston and Los Angeles' Doug France.

Ed Garvey, head of the NFL Players Association, got his start working in his father's drugstore for 50 cents an hour in Burlington, Wisc. Sixth grade. Marking newspapers."

And in this time when hiring freezes and budget cuts are routine topics of conversation in Washington, Stuart Eizenstat, assistant to the president for domestic affairs and policy, brought a message from President Carter that assured full support for a $2 billion Youth Initiatives Employment and Education program now working its way through Congress.

"I can't think of anything that would be more uplifting for this country than passage of that Youth Initiatives program," said Liz Carpenter. "Unless, of course, it was passage of the ERA."