Among the several thousand dissident Poles who have settled in America in recent months, few have earned as much respect as Romuald Spasowski. He is the former ambassador of Poland to the United States who on Dec. 20, 1981--a week after his motherland was darkened by the terror of martial law--took political asylum in America. "I cannot have any association," he said, " . . . with the authorities responsible for this brutality and inhumanity."

A few days ago, the Jesuit fathers of Wheeling College conferred an honorary doctor of laws degree on Spasowski. Springtime in West Virginia renews the land with special beauties, but the presence of Spasowski among the graduates and their families was a reminder that moral courage has a beauty of its own.

Spasowski, a tall man whose erect bearing has the dignity of a Paderewski polonaise, spoke briefly to his audience. He was grateful for the honor "which is not for me only but for the Polish people and their indomitable spirit of freedom."

He recalled his country's past: "Historically speaking, Poland played an important role in the defense of Christianity and its values . . . We fought with many aggressors who were not Christian and who wished to get through Poland to the heart of Europe."

And he looked to its future: "Solidarity lives and will live in the hearts of the Polish people . . . Christian values longing for freedom will finally prevail in Poland."

Since his self-chosen exile to the West, Spasowski has remained well out of the public eye. He has no permanent address and has yet to decide which of several university teaching offers he will accept. When not writing, he earns his living by lecturing.

He has granted almost no interviews in the past five months. But the warm hospitality at Wheeling College seemed to relax him, and afterward he welcomed the opportunity for an extended on-the-record conversation.

I was curious, first, to know what took him so long to bolt the Communist Party. Spasowski replied: "Well, you see, there was never such drastic events as this one. It was during my activities in the foreign service--and I was only in the foreign service--that I contributed to some closer contacts between the Polish people and the Western countries."

This assessment is confirmed by others in the diplomatic corps. Spasowski, now 61, never had the reputation of being a hard-line communist ideologue. Richard Davis, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland, said of Spasowski last December that he was always "a patriotic Pole first and a Communist second." A Polish diplomat said that his colleague was "more a Catholic than a Communist."

This may explain the celebration at the Polish Embassy that Spasowski staged in 1978 to mark the election of Pope John Paul II. It surely explains why Spasowski and his wife, Ganda, who attended Catholic mass regularly during her 30 years as a diplomat's wife in five posts, spoke openly of their support for reforms on Poland.

A trait common to exiles from communist countries is to lecture Americans on what is seen as our luxurious ways and our naivete' about Marxism. Solzhenitsyn has mastered the art. But loosening thunderclaps of scorn is not for Spasowski. He says, simply and unjudgmentally, that Americans "do not realize how difficult life is under socialism. You are not there."

A tone of sadness occasionally arises in Spasowski's voice. He knows that the West's attention span is short, even without the Falklands and the fighting on the Lebanese border crowding out news from Poland. He speaks of "my duty" to keep Americans informed of the Polish "thirst for freedom."

At the moment, Spasowski believes that the unrest during the past two weeks in Poland reveals that his countrymen are not adjusting to the new suppression: "During this spring and summer, I think the Polish people will show--eloquently and strongly--what it means to be attached to the spirit of freedom, to the old values of the Catholic faith."

The substance of Spasowski's own attachment is still developing. But with his record of service showing that he was always closer to the Polish people than to the communist regime, his current patriotism deserves to be honored.