Sunday afternoon, as he relaxed at his in-laws', John Jacob, the new executive director of the National Urban League, was saying he was ready for the rigors of national leadership. He had been, he said, "tested in the fire."

Not quite. Not on the same front lines of demonstrations and the ballot box that brought Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, and Jacob's predecessor, Vernon Jordan, to national attention. Jacob has been active in the league movement for 17 years, serving as president of the Washington office for four years and two years as second in command to Jordan. He has been one of the insiders, garnering a reputation as a low-keyed operative.

Yesterday Jacob, who took over the reins of the country's oldest civil rights organization on Jan. 1, moved out front.

"Never . . . has the state of black America been more vunerable," was his opening volley at the league's annual assessment on black progress. In its budget cuts and "attack on civil rights," the Reagan administration, said Jacob, "created a feeling among many blacks that they are forgotten people." He said what was needed, and what was already growing, was a "New Realism," a time "to take off the gloves and come out swinging."

What many listeners in the audience at Howard University expected, and didn't receive, was the first punch from Jacob. Jacob, 46, was the correct communicator, in a cautious shade of gray with the splash of a red tie, precisely describing the problems, strongly but politely fingering the blame, and urging a coalition of solutions. But the punch wasn't there.

That's not the point of John Jacob, several of his friends and associates insist. Carlton Alexis, a vice president of Howard University and Jacob's physician, commented, "He's a clear thinker, highly analytical, articulate in a low-keyed fashion. And he listens. Is he the right man for the times? Well, 1982 or 1902, what does it matter, there are fiery speakers, like Vernon, and others. But the yardstick should be results, not styles." Sterling Tucker, a former president of the Washington League and one of Jacob's mentors, emphatically said, "He is the man for the job. He is a leader of ideas as well as people. He knows how to make ideas operational. He is not a dreamer."

In fact, he is part of the Howard network of practical leaders. "In those days by and large Howard was a voice in the wilderness, producing . . . credible change-agents in this world," says Jacob. "It was pretty hard to be on the campus with Mordecai Johnson, who was challenging racist institutions, but he did it so eloquently that folks tolerated it. It was pretty hard to come out of that environment without feeling the need to want to make things right." And Jacob, called emotionally "contained" by his daughter, relieves the stress of his commitment with tennis, bike riding and reading popular thrillers like "The Fifth Horseman" and "Rage of Angels."

The demands of the league job are building -- last night he appeared on "MacNeil/Lehrer," this morning it's "Good Morning America." Jacob compares it to a championship fight. "You've got 15 rounds to do, they'd better not ask for 16. But for 15 you can give it your best shot," he said. He has no fears, except that people might not accept his limitations. Jordan's visibility made him the target of a would-be assassin. "I don't want to be shot but I certainly know I am not in control. I promise not to shoot myself. But I also know that things I say and do will offend some people and I am hoping that the sickness that permeates this society will get sufficient cure . . . "

Jacob, then, is the prepared practical tactician, coming to the spotlight from an organization that is traditionally more conservative and business-oriented, and as the alliance between minorities and the private sector is being reassessed. Jacob assumes the job, one of the most vied-for among the black leadership cadre, at a time when the political issues are both plain and complicated, volatile and subtle, and when the postures and language of the traditional black leadership have worn thin with many constituents.

An Alternative & an Answer

Jacob, one of five sons of a poor Houston, Tex., minister and a social worker trained at Howard, put aside the stacks of papers he was reviewing on Sunday afternoon and said, "I think that part of the problem with the struggle is that there is some notion that there has to be a one way to do things. I do not believe that is the case. I believe one can serve and serve well and not do it the same way that someone else has done."

So he might, in a time he describes as "mean," represent both an alternative and an answer. "I have some notions of my own, and I think I have not considered patterning my style after anyone other than me. I think I learned something from having spent 14 years at the local level in this business . . . seeing the hurt and the pain of poor people, seeing the hostility and the lack of compassion of those who were supposed to be of help to those people. I have probably developed my own unique style. I can describe it but I am debating whether I want to," said Jacob.

His round face, marked only by a slight mustache, has the immobility of one who has just refused an argument. He doesn't want to be boxed in. And his predecessor, Jordan, admires that independence. "The period when I was out, he stepped in without fear, with loyalty and independently. When I came back we went right back to working as a team. I liked his answer when people asked him what the difference was between us, and he said, 'Vernon's 6-foot-4-inches and I am 5-foot-7-inches.' He will do very well," says Jordan.

Jacob's own experiences make him an eyewitness to the numbing data the Urban League researchers collect. His childhood was spent with four brothers and his parents in a three-room house, with the outhouse in the front yard. His Baptist preacher father had two churches in the Texas countryside and expanded the family income with carpentry and construction work.

"We grew up with very traditional, southern Baptist principles -- no drinking, no dancing, no card playing, no movies on Sunday. The overriding principle was 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,' we really played that out," said Jacob. "Though we were poor I separate that out from the whole notion of the syndrome of poverty. My parents didn't have money but they had very rigid middle-class standards. You had to do well in school, you had to work. I can never remember not working. You could not create any problems for anybody, at any time. So we grew up, straight, upright, good, well-mannered, smart, poor kids."

Through a scholarship, Jacob came to Howard in 1953, planning to turn his economics and political science classes into a law degree because that's what a friend wanted to do. "I had never seen a black lawyer before I came to Howard, had only seen one black physician, one black dentist," recalled Jacob, who didn't pursue law, but instead chose social work.

Post Office Blues

In those days, it is said, more black college graduates worked in the post office than anyplace else. Jacob tried to avoid that, but didn't. After Howard, he finished his ROTC commitment and thought of trying a military career, but was turned down for an extension because of an economic recession, and for six months was unemployed. Living at the Kappa House on S Street NW, Jacob would look for jobs until finally he ended up desperate at then-senator Lyndon Johnson's office. "This aide of the senator said to me, 'You know the senator is chairman of the so-and-so committee on the post office. Would you be interested in working in the post office?' Well I had gone down there, so I couldn't tell them no. So I said I checked and the closing date for the exam had passed. He said, 'We will check on that.' Two weeks later I was in the post office . . . I hated going to work; I went to work mad, I came home mad. I stayed mad for 22 months," said Jacob. At the time, he found escape after the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift watching "The Edge of Night" soap opera.

More significant relief came with a job in Baltimore as a public assistance caseworker. That job, especially putting children into foster care homes, he recalled, was his toughest job to date.

"In jobs like that you just have to hope you are right, that what you are doing is right for the child and the parent, at least for the child. When you are snatching a child out of its mother's arms to say, 'I am going to make it better for you,' it forces, it seems to me, one, compassion, a belief in certain beliefs, and on the other hand, a belief that there ought to be a better way, " said Jacob, who is married to Barbara Jacob, an accountant. Their daughter, Sheryl, is a senior speech pathology student at Howard.

At the same time he was commuting to Baltimore he was working on a master's degree in social work at Howard. When he returned to the campus in the early 1960s, political activism was part of the curriculum. He liked what undergraduate Stokely Carmichael was saying and admired another student, Walter Green, who demonstrated and went to jail with CORE every weekend. Jacob opted to study. "I was afraid of not getting out of Howard in two years. I should have done it [demonstrated], as all of us should have," he explained. In 1965 Jacob got his first job at the league's Washington office, eventually serving as president from 1975 to 1979.

He hasn't taken the criticism of black leadership personally yet but he is excited about the debate over who represents black people. When Ed Meese, the presidential counselor, and the black neo-conservatives said that civil rights leadership was "out of step" with black views, Jacob took exception. Over the weekend he took exception to the debate on "Agronsky & Co." as to whether columnist Carl Rowan represented black people. "It becomes clear, taking the empirical data, not collected by us but by the Gallup Poll, where black people fall in this line of questioning," said Jacob, reviewing a league study that indicates that blacks only agree with conservative thought on homosexuality, legalization of drugs and pre- and extramaritial sex.

"It is exhilarating to be able to say that our position and the position of Rowan and civil rights leaders generally is consistent in terms of where black people are and what black people are articulating for themselves. So it is refreshing to be able to place upon the public record what black people are feeling and saying."

Jacob faces the limelight moments and the trench issues with a developing law of Jacob. "I am always looking for ways to make the world right, because I do think there is a right way for the world to be. I do not believe that it is . . . right by the law of Jacob, as much as there is simply a right way for the world to be."