Lying on the asphalt that cool May morning in Fort Wayne, his blood gushing from the gunshot wound, Vernon Jordan thought, oddly enough, of the daily letters his mother wrote him in college. "Son," she wrote, "if you trust Him, He will take care of you."

A flicker of stunned disbelief shadows Jordan's eyes as he looks across his office today, almost five months and five operations later. "I obviously thought right after I was shot that I was going to die, and I didn't," he says, rubbing his gold cufflinks etched with the equal signs of his National Urban League. "I was conscious from the time I was shot until they put me under. Most of that is indescribable, personally. There was the fear of death, but also the reality of death abates a fear, especially under a situation I couldn't do anything about."

But Vernon Jordan is not a man who takes easily to passivity, not for long. Ten weeks after a deer-hunter's rifle placed a wound the size of a fist an inch from his spine, Jordan arranged for the local executives of the League to come to the hospital. Still painfully weak, but eager to disprove the rumors of his incapacitation, he got out of the wheelchair at the meeting room door and walked in, wearing his blue Halston robe and matching pajamas.

The sound of 118 pairs of hands clapping matched his steps. Leaning over the lectern, the effort stinging but the act exhilarating, Jordan spoke. "I've been waiting three months for that," he said, the million-dollar smile flashing. "Why don't you do it again."

Now, after a few weeks of gradually returning to work, Jordan, 45, has made it, as a poetic friend of his says, past the brush of the angel's wings. Friends say Jordan is more sober and introspective in spirit. But for him the motion is forward.

The Vernon Jordan of late 1980 is still railing against the ills of America, but taking the time to consider his own choices, to ponder the question he asks his closest friends: Why was I spared?

Since his shooting, the FBI has been investigating a number of brutal killings of blacks, though the FBI says there is no link to the unsolved Jordan attempt.He agrees, saying, "It's all reflective of the sickness in this society, that black people continue to be the point persons of racism."

In his New York office, with its bird's-eye view of the East River, Jordan's voice is resonant with the polish of an orator as he considers the incident's impact on his life. He has lost considerable weight -- his frame more akin now to a reedy Jabber than a trim Ali -- but his easy smile is intact. The pain was so traumatic that he treats it confidentially, like a closed file.

The outrage, expressed in the outpourings of concern, the visits from the prominent and the sympathetic, buoyed up his determination to live. He knew, as he says, he was "not running this race alone."

President Carter, the target of often scathing criticism from Jordan, and Edward Kennedy went to Fort Wayne; later Ronald Reagan would come to New York. George Wallace, an arch-foe now united in common tragedy, sent a telegram that remains on Jordan's desk.

But the impact of almost dying went deeper than Jordan will admit; he now chooses bravado to hide the terror of vulnerability. After two weeks in Fort Wayne, Jordan was transferred to New York. In the ambulance en route to the hospital, he saw the sign for the Triborough Bridge. He told one of the doctors, "I never thought I would see that sign again."

Here was a healthy man, powerfully built at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, who played tennis with as much fervor as he shook hands in a crowd. He had never been sick. "I had never broken an arm when I was a kid, or had a broken ankle. It was traumatic from that standpoint," he says.

But those 98 hospital days were not for soul-searching. It was a summer to stop hating the Yankees and cheer Reggie Jackson. When his friend FBI director William Webster called, they talked about the case, and tennis. When David Mahoney, chairman of the board of Norton Simon, came to the hospital, they talked about his health and the last four Super Bowls they had attended. When friends, like Franklin Thomas, head of the Ford Foundation, came by, sometimes they would just grab each other's hands. Jordan occupied his mind by watching television news, NFL tapes provided by Pete Roselle and Western movies, and by listening to tapes from theologian Howard Thurman, telling him he had been spared for additional roles.

"I just thought about getting well. I don't think that the hospital recovering lends itself to reflective thinking," he says. Jordan read only one chapter of a Churchill biography in the hospital. He laughs and says, "It's not like being on the beach in LaSamanna," referring to the ultra-chic resort in the Caribbean.

Soon, even in the comfort of the "shah's suite" in New York Hosiptal, with his hefty mailbag and constant flow of watermelon and flowers, Jordan began to yearn to be in the fray.

As the political season heated up, according to one friend, Jordon would talk on the phone until he was weak. He did't change his early assessment of the presidentail choices, borrowing a thought from Will Rogers: "The best thing about this group of candidates is that only one can win."

He lights a cigar and talks about the frustration of being on the sidelines.

"The impulse went right along as I watched the news. When Ben Hooks spoke to the Republican convention, I sat there pulling for him," says Jordon. When the racial unrest in Chattanooga occurred in July after two Ku Klux Klansmen were aquitted and one received reduced charges in the case of assault on four black women, Jordan watched the reports on television. c"A black lady was saying something to the effect of had those been black men there would have been a conviction.In other words, she was reaffirming the double standard of justice in Hamilton County. And I agree with that. And all I could do was say right on." Risk and Reputation

The start of Vernon Jordan's evening on May 28 didn't seem any different from the hundreds he spends on the road. After speaking to 1,000 people at a League-sponsored fund-raiser he circulated with the guests. He sat in the hotel bar with Martha Coleman, a white member of the local board. They talked about each other, Jordan learning she was married and divorced four times. They left the bar, drove to her home, and after a half hour, returned to the hotel. He was getting out of her red-and-white Grand Prix shortly after 2 a.m. when he was shot. In the next few days, those circumstances created a whispering campaign about both their personal lives.

Tough, says Jordan, to those who were more interested in the gossip than the shooting. "I view that as their problem, not mine," he says deliberately. "I have to define the parameters of my morality and my life. I have to be accountable. The focus, it seems to me, should have been on the shooting itself, instead of what else might have been going on. But then I think people should do whatever they want to do. And I don't have to like it."

That challenge, and that rationale, are part of the tried and true Vernon Jordan, whose bite and brilliance transported him from a Southern civil rights lawyer to a national leader. As head of the most solvent and influential integrated civil rights group, his comments count -- in the Fortune 500 board rooms, at the White House, on colege campuses and on the dinner platform of a hundred Urban League chapters.

Did he think it was a risk, socializing with one of his constituents, going to her home? "In a sense, I didn't think about it. . . That is the nature of my life. It could have been one person, it could have been 10. I very seldom eat that gray roast beef that is served at these dinners. Afterwards I am hungry, and I go get something, sometimes it's in someone's house, at an after-party. I would eat in the local place that's open," says Jordan.

Even the appearance of an interracial couple driving on an Indiana highway didn't bother Jordan. "It never dawned on me. It never enters my mind as I move around the country that my associations and friendships in a movement that has been interracial from the get-go would result in some kind of -- I never thought about it in the South, don't now," says Jordan.

Some newspapers accounts openly discussed the impact of this socializing on the support of the League and among black women. "I didn't feel I owed anybody an apology about anything. Maybe there are some women who are upset. I view that as their problem, not mine." Gossip and the Wife

Shirley Jordan, the civil rights leader's wife, calls the shooting "the accident." Not "the incident," or "Ft. Wayne," as most do. Her choice of words reflects her attitude.There's a price to prominence. Death has been the unspeakable risk for civil rights families since a bomb landed in Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s bedroom in Montgomery, Ala., in the late 1950s, since Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway in Jackson, Miss., in 1963. She thought her husband was dead when she was notified of the shooting, she thought her friends were protecting her from the pain.

In their 22-year marriage, the Jordans have never discussed death. "I honestly never though about it. I didn't consider Vernon a militant, didn't consider the Urban League a militant group. I didn't think Vernon would be a target," says Shirley Jordan, an attractive woman with a full, friendly face. "I don't think you can go through life thinking about probables."

When she got to his side in Ft. Wayne, she remembers telling him he was a champ. "I was very sorry to see him, who had always been a strong person, to see him with all those medical devices," says Shirley Jordan.

The Jordans, who were married in 1958, have one daughter, Vickee, a college student. Fifteen years ago, when Shirley Jordan was 28 years old and an active social worker, she was stricken with multiple sclerosis. She continues to lead an active social life, using a battery-operated wheelchair to go to museums and theaters. After her first visit to the Windows on the World restaurant in New York this summer, she took a chocolate cake to her husband in the hospital.

Both Vernon and Shirley Jordan say they have never discussed why he was with Martha Coleman. Once, right after the shooting, a group of friends were discussing the gossip, and Mrs. Jordan said she spoke her mind, "so that Vickee would know how I felt." She says, "I think being married to a person as public as Vernon, you go through life feeling there are people who want to be with him." She says she was curious about Martha Coleman, so she read all the stories. "And I watched her on television but it was just natural curiosity." She explains, "I would not have felt any less threatened if it had been a black woman. I don't think anytime a man is with a woman it's clandestine. If I have any regret at all it was because of the interpretation my daughter would have felt. I spoke up and said I don't think you should feel threatened every time a person of the opposite sex is with your husband. If the Urban League is an interracial organization, you shouldn't feel threatened. It was not the first time he was with a white woman, it wouldn't be the last." She feels secure in their relationship, she says, adding, "maybe I'm foolish." The Germ of Activism

For Vernon Jordan, the summer of 1980 should have been a spell of challenging the politicians, chiding America's neglect of minorities and always holding out for the American dream. That urge to contribute comes from his parents and his childhood Atlanta neighborhood. "My parents used to quote, 'Woe be it unto him who puts his hand on the plow and turns his back,'" recalls Jordan. His mother ran a catering service and his father worked as a government mail-clerk supervisor. They lived in public housing for a while, right near the Atlanta compound of black universities, where he heard the speeches of A. T. Walden, Benjamin Mays, William Dawson, Adam Clayton Powell and Thurgood Marshall. After attending DePauw University in Indiana, he earned a law degree at Howard University and then returned to Atlanta.

His first publicity came when he escorted student Charlayne Hunter into the University of Georgia in the midst of screaming crowds. After directing the Voter Education Project and the United Negro College Fund, he succeeded Whitney Young as head of the Urban League in 1971. In his time, the Urban League has become a sharp articulator of shifting definitions of discrimination. Early in the 1970s, Jordan reminded blacks and whites not to forget the black underclass, while the middle-class expansion was studied and lauded. The institution of the annual report, "The State of Black America," is considered an important political measuring rod.

"It's not in my nature to let activism go," he says, explaining his impatience with his forced silence. A certain strongheaded fearlessness marked his career. "I can't remember being afraid," he says quietly. "I used to drive the Georgia roads at night by myself. The day after Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were found, I drove from Jackson to Memphis. I wasn't afraid. I had to go from Jackson to Memphis."

The activism and leadership has pushed Vernon Jordan into the forefront and occasionally out on a limb. In 1977, fed up with what he perceived to be the Carter administration's reneging on promises to the black constituency, Jordan lashed out. "Black people feel that their hopes and needs have been betrayed," he said then. They faced each other, and the nation's cameras, in an emotionally charged standoff at the League's convention.Jordan's reputation was immediately enhanced. Afterward, Jordan called together the first meeting of the country's senior black leadership in a decade. As a result, the administration asked for an overhaul of its urban policy.

Despite the headlines and the activity, the question of the vitality of the black leadership ensued. The leaders are criticized for placing more energy in the negotiations than in the follow-up.

This summer a poll of its readers by Black Enterprise Magazine found that 73 percent thought black leadership was ineffective. "I disagree," says Jordan. "On a day-to-day basis we can see measurable results of what we try to do. We are accountable for that, much of that 73 percent is looking at the 1980s for the kind of leadership they saw in the 1960s, without a realization that the times have changed. To quote Shakespeare, 'New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,'" says Jordan.

"Just like the country, black leadership has undergone a metamorphisis in the '70s," says Jordan. "It's not completely out of the soul-searching process but I do think the Black Leadership Forum has been effective."

The Forum's existence has under-scored the versatility of black opinion. Last summer, when the PUSH and SCLC contingents were meeting in the Middle East with Palestinian representatives, Jordan lashed out at them. "I took a few licks on the chin. But I also think That's leadership," he says. He was pointedly accused of catering to his "Jewish, monied constituencies.

"I have been in this business 20 years. The only thing I know that is mine in this process is my integrity. I am not about to scarifice that for some contributions."

While his feeling about the black leadership credibility and his non-ranking on this month's Ebony Magazine poll of its readers of the 25 most admired Americans (Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson are the leaders), appear to some evidence that Jordan is "out of touch," others feel his credibility is at an all-time high.

"The respect and perception of him has expanded considerably," says Richard Hatcher, mayor of Gary, Ind., basing his view on conversation with a cross section of blacks. "The most recent parallel was Andy Young, right after he was fired. It's sad and tragic, but there is a tendency to rally around someone who has had a misfortune. The interesting thing is that the personal aspects seem not to be a factor. The fact is that he was shot as part of an overall brutalization of black people."

Coy Eklund, the chief executive of Equitable Life Insurance, and the board chairman of the Urban League, says, "This has heightened his significance . . . we came so close losing him that people have a new appreciation of his value." The Marathon Missed

From the beginning of his convalescence, Jordan kept the 70th anniversary convention of the National Urban League in August as his goal. He wanted to be there. It would be his marathon run. His wife, the doctors, his friends and League associates gently advised against it. Dr. LaSalle Lefall finally appealed to his macho strain, saying, "you don't want to look pitiful. Come back when you are strong." Jordan made the final decision not to go. But his executive director, John Jacobs, remembers that it was made "with just as much pain as his first days in the hospital." Hymn of the Survivor

A year ago, when the Black Leadership Forum was meeting, Jordan was apprehensive about the tone of the gatherings. "I'm not so good at prayer meetings," he remarked. Now he's more relfective. "I am certain he didn't know the extent of his spirtual background," says Gardner Taylor, a prominent minister, who advised Jordan during his ordeal.

After his first public speech since the shooting, at the Tuskegee Institute last week, Jordan called Louis Martin, a White House special assistant, to tell him about his reception. "Now normally Vernon would comment on the music, the singers, but then get right down to the business of what the brothers and sisters were talking about politically," says Martin. "But I was struck that he was so enamored of the choir, he quoted the hymns, and I think it's a sign that he is interested in the broader quality of life."