As he was growing up, Joe DelVecchio's parents told him every day, "Study hard in school, Joey, so you won't have to work like your father."

DelVecchio's father, Frank, who immigrated to the Boston area from Italy in 1911, is a third-generation balloon vendor. The short, stocky man known as "the dean of balloon peddlers" stood on street corners 15 hours a day, seven days a week, so his two sons could go to college.

"It was what my husband lived for," said Adele DelVecchio. "To see the boys go to school was his only dream."

In time, the sons did fulfill their father's dream. Frank, now 48, was graduated frm Tufts University and Harvard Law School. Joe, 39, has a master's degree in political science from the University of Maryland and has completed course work for a doctorate. In 1968, he became a consumer affairs specialist for the Cost of Living Council in Washington.

The salary was good, but Joe DelVecchio grew to dislike it more each year. The work was tedious and repetitive. He longed to try something different, something exciting.

So, in 1976, DelVecchio left his job. With no plans and the bills piling up, he did the one thing that came most naturally to him. He got a bunch of balloons and went to a corner in Georgetown.

Within minutes, someone bought the enitre bunch. That happened day after day and DelVecchio knew he was on to something big.

"I'd been selling balloons with my father since I was 5 years old and I had never seen this happen," he said. "Limousines would pull up and the person would buy all the balloons for a friend in the hospital or for a birthday. It hit me that there was a market for this."

Thus, the idea for "Balloon Bouquets." DelVecchio placed newspaper advertisements saying, "Flowers again? Why not sent balloons instead?" He began delivering balloon arrangements around the city.

There are now "Balloon Bouquets" franchises in 19 cities across the country. Frank DelVecchio and his wife operate the Boston branch. Many of the others are owned by Joe DelVecchio's friends, former Washintonians who, like him, wanted to do something new with their lives.

Steven Blunck, 29, opened the Los Angeles affiliate after a year at the University of Virginia and a short career in the used-car business. While he was selling cars, he learned he might have cancer. It later turned out that he didn't, and he decided to make "every day a celebration of life."

"Changing your life style so drastically is pretty scary," says Blunck, who says he has delivered more than 200 orders in one day. "Then I said, 'Who am I living my life for anyway?' I jumped in with both feet."

Blunck's regular customers include Dolly Parton, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Carson, Allan Carr and Ann Margret.

The owner of the San Franciso franchise, Mark D'Angelo, 32, grew tired of editing microbiology journals in Washington. "I just abhorred being stuck in an office," he says. "I needed to do something where I'd have a lot of contact with people."

"I took a personal and professional gamble," says another franchise owner, "and it all worked out. I've never been so satisfied nor have I ever so well off."

Joe DelVecchio says he knew a balloon phenomenon was coming. He just did not know how quickly. Several "Balloon Bouquet" franchises report a 300-500 percent increase in sales in the last year. "Some looked at this as a fad," DelVecchio says. "I saw it as an alternative and I was right. The people who give balloons look very imaginative. Balloons bring out the child in all of us."

DelVecchio runs the Washington business out of his Columbia Plaza apartment. There are telephones in every room, all ringing incessantly."Balloon Bouquests" charges $30 for two dozen balloons, including delivery.

President Reagan received 70 red, white and blue ones on his birthday. Barbara Bush, Rosalynn Carter and Joan Mondale have been ballooned. Friends had an arrangement delivered to the hospitalized James Brady with a note, "We hope these give you a lift."

One man sent balloons to a woman he had been pursuing with a note that read, "If you don't call me tonight, tomorrow I will march two dozen eleplants into your office."

Another man proposed marriage to his girlfriend with a bouquet of balloons.

As he describes the satisfaction, Joe DelVecchio's dark eyes grow wide with excitement. "This work is in my blood" he says. "I take a lot of pride in this. I've been doing it a long time."

The sons learned their father's trade at a young age. The three would often leave home long before the sun came up, traveling to circuses, carnivals and college football games."My brother and I would get so impatient with him," Joe recalls. "It would be cold and a group of people would be waiting, but he'd spend 15 minutes with each child, letting him pick out the color he wanted."

The elder DelVecchio, 81, says this was his secret to success: He wanted every balloon he sold to be a special experience for a child. "And I was a professional," he adds in a heavy Italian accent. "I looked clean and neat, not like the other balloon vendors."

Things have changed noticeably in the business from the days when DelVecchio had to blow up each one of the thick balloons his wife's grandfather, Francesco La Riccia, introduced to the United States in 1896. g"I'd puff and puff until my eyes would pop out and my ears would ring," he recalls. "But it made me a strong, healthy person. All the money in the world can't buy that."

He still takes out his battered cart to sell balloons; his sons' "Balloon Bouquet" crews ride around in "balloonmobiles" equipped with cylinders of helium. The sales approach may be more modern, but the younger DelVecchios work with the same basic principles they learned from Dad -- work hard, be honest and you'll be happy.

And Joe DelVecchio is happy. "I'm doing something I truly love," he says. "Like my father, balloons are my life."