When the first Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards were given in 1969, a year after Kennedy's death, the occasion was filled with pathos, sentiment and solemnity. Yesterday, at the 14th annual awards ceremony, many of the same faces were around--but the mood was ebullient.

The awards are no longer merely a tribute to an assassinated politician, but prestigious and cherished citations for the winners. They are given for stories that chronicle social issues and the problems of the disadvantaged and needy.

"It's important for people to know there's another side of life," said Ethel Kennedy, deeply tanned and wearing a summery silk dress.

"I just came from the Senate where we are working on a budget that turns its back on all the human needs these people spoke of in their stories," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). "The administration and Congress fail to address the neediest people in our society."

Kennedy family dogs barked and loud rock music blared around the late senator's vast Hickory Hill estate as about 125 journalists, family friends and award winners sipped gin and tonics in the steamy back yard.

"I'm like a tourist . . . all agog over this place," said Norman Sinclair, first-prize print winner (along with Fred Girard) for a 16-part series on "The Poor and Their Right to Appeal," published by the Detroit News. "Our newspaper has always been known as conservative, so winning a prize like this really gives it some luster," Sinclair added.

The most famous honoree was actress Helen Hayes, who received an honorable mention for narrating "No Place Like Home," produced by WNET-TV. She is also probably the only person who can manage to upstage Ted Kennedy in a crowd. People lined up to meet her.

Other first-prize winners who were presented with a bronze bust of the late senator and $1,000 were:

Television: Lance Heflin and Mark Potter for "Human Cargo," a series about the influx of Columbian and Haitian refugees into Florida, which ran on WPGL--TV, Miami.

Radio: Bill Buzenberg, Steven Reiner, and Deborah Amos of National Public Radio for "Immigration and Refugees," a series probing U.S. immigration policy.

Photo: A double first prize was given to Jay Mather of the Louisville Courier-Journal for "She Ain't Stooping Now," a photo essay on self-rehabilitation, and Jerry Lower of the Southern Illinoisan for a photo essay about a camp for the handicapped.

Inside the pastel, airy house were nostalgic reminders of a family hit by trajedy: scores of photos of Bobby Kennedy, a framed copy of Ted Kennedy's eulogy for Robert, and one of President John Kennedy's inaugural address.

And in the front yard was a reminder that 11 children grew up in the mansion. In big, black letters a sign read: "TRESPASSERS WILL BE EATEN."