Television will probably never be as good as it was when you could turn it on and see what Dave Garroway was up to.

"Well here we are," Dave Garroway said, materializing on camera in bow tie and glasses and an enormous yoke of a lavalier mike--instantly indelible trademarks--for the premiere of the "Today" show 30 years ago. "And good morning to you--the very first good morning of what I hope and suspect will be a great many good mornings between you and I. Here it is . . . Jan. 14, 1952, when NBC begins a new program called 'Today' and--if it doesn't sound too revolutionary--I really believe begins a new kind of television."

We usually don't think of television personalities in the large-scale terms reserved for movie stars, or political notables, or illustrious artists of one more rarefied realm or another--in terms of "greatness." But what Dave Garroway did on, and for, television, was great, on "Today" and "Wide Wide World" and "Garroway at Large." It was clear and direct and intimate and real. And great.

And so the news of Dave Garroway's death yesterday was particularly cruel. It was a death that made you stop and think about how much of value has been lost forever and, as far as television goes, how sadly distant and remote the bright beginnings seem now.

Dave Garroway was very important to television. If this were theater we were talking about, his death would be like all the Barrymores dying at once; everyone who's come after him has owed him something. He wasn't just the born "communicator"--the title originally given him as "Today" host--he was an inventor. Inventing TV-the-machine was not that hard. Dave Garroway helped invent what you put on it once you've got it.

And because he used television so well, Dave Garroway became very important to the people who met him through it. He knew the secret of television. He knew how to be a perfect guest in millions of homes at once. Before it was all over, he was family. A few years ago, Dave Garroway and Lee Lawrence, one of the early "Today" producers and Garroway's close friend, were walking down Madison Avenue when a stranger rushed up and said, "Say David, there's something I've been wanting to ask you for a long time," as if they were old pals. Neither Garroway nor Lawrence had ever seen the man before.

Utterly at home in front of a camera, able to look into its lens and talk amiably with everyone with whom he made this new kind of 20th-century contact, Garroway was in private a shy man, a putterer, a jazz buff and, for all of his life, a scholar, an inquisitor. He could never learn enough. What made him so good on television was that he thought television should be a continuing education, for him and for the people who watched.

Yet he never played the professor. He was a fellow student, damn smart, but no show-off. He was so eager and so readily fascinated that he drew you into any discussion, whether the subject was the fate of the earth or National Donut Week. He brought to the "Today" show his old theme song (circa 1949), Larry Elgart's recording of "Sentimental Journey," and a brilliantly simple way of saying goodbye: his right arm raised and his hand open flat and the word "Peace," spoken long before it had been politicized and buzzed up.

On the 30th anniversary edition of the "Today" show earlier this year, Jane Pauley asked Garroway why he was so averse to "stuffy" things. Still wearing glasses--thicker now--and with white hair swept back and sticking over his collar, Wizard-of-Oz style, Garroway told her, "I don't like stuffy things or people very much I guess. There was so much to talk about and do, and there still is in this world, that I don't find it a very stuffy world even today."

Five years earlier, Garroway also showed up for the 25th anniversary of the "Today" show. While historian Daniel Boorstin was being interviewed on camera by someone else, members of the show's cast talked among themselves, or primped, or yawned. But there was Garroway, standing in the wings, watching a monitor and hanging on every one of Boorstin's words. How lucky are the people who can sustain that kind of passion for experience. These are the kind of people who ought to be on television.

In 1975, Garroway sat down for a long interview about TV's early days, in which he played so enormous a role. There was a sadness haunting the reminiscence, though, because Garroway hadn't been working. "There haven't been any offers," he said. He had just returned from the Soviet Union, where he got to look through the world's biggest telescope. Astronomy was a lifelong hobby. After the death of his first wife in 1961, Garroway left "Today," and the following summer was observed by friends staying up all night to stare silently at the Milky Way through a telescope he had at his place in Aspen.

But when recalling the first morning of "Today," Garroway was affable and animated. "I remember it as though it were now," he said. "I mean, I don't remember exactly what and who were on the show, but I remember the great feel of it. I was delighted with it. I felt pleased with myself as I perhaps never have before or since. And when it was all over, the whole crew applauded. It was the best sound I ever heard."

Garroway strolled into untested waters--early television--and showed everybody else how to navigate. He was virtually never at a loss and never uncomfortable on camera. For author Max Wilk's book "The Golden Age of Television," Mort Werner, the original producer of "Today," recalled why he had picked Garroway for the show even though he didn't think, at first, that he was the right man for the job. Garroway called him from Chicago and asked him to fly in for dinner--a meal, it turned out, of baked beans and root beer at Garroway's apartment.

"We ate," Werner recalled, "and then we sat and talked all night and I discovered a lot of things about Dave. First, that he was very well educated; second, that he had worked for NBC radio for many years in several different cities as a newscaster and a reporter; and finally, that he'd won the Chicago Open golf tournament, which wasn't pertinent. But I really fell in love with the man on a one-to-one basis. So I came back to New York and I said, 'I've found my host--Dave Garroway.' "

For "Wide, Wide World," a Sunday afternoon NBC program that celebrated TV's ability to obliterate distances, Garroway would sit on a stool and play national interlocutor. Cameras were mounted in roller coasters or attached to men parachuting from planes. You saw old railroad engines and a real western roundup and the Grand Canyon.

And Garroway. He was the calm center that somehow kept you absolutely riveted. Part of his talent with the camera was instinctual, part of it was brilliantly devised--and part of it may have grown out of a kind of alienation.

"It was the funniest thing about looking into that camera," he explained in 1975. "I didn't have any idea what it would be like that first time. But when we got on the air, I felt very warm and comfortable--strangely so--instead of being frightened. The lens seemed to be so direct and friendly, really, almost as if I could see somebody there. It was a black channel to the people, a neutron star. I still think that way. It stuck with me all my life. I am much more comfortable and more in-communication with whoever is at the end of that black hole than I am with someone in person."

The word "peace" got trampled during the '60s, so Dave Garroway changed his farewell to "courage," because he said he'd read a poem written by Amelia Earhart before her last flight. "And the last lines of it were, 'Courage is the price which each of us must pay for peace,' " he said. "Up to then, I'd been supplicating--'Please give me peace.' This was a way in order to find it."

Dave Garroway had a knack for haunting sign-offs. He would close "Wide Wide World" with a few lines from Edna St. Vencent Millay: "The world stands out on either side, No wider than the heart is wide; Above the world is stretched the sky, No higher than the soul is high."

This was Dave Garroway.