A crowd of prominent admirers of the late Margaret McNamara gathered in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery last night to present the first Margaret McNamara Memorial Award to Judge Mary Conway Kohler for her programs teaching troubled young people to improve their lives by helping others.

Barbara Bush, wife of the vice president, helped present Kohler with a plaque honoring her and commemorating McNamara and her devotion to wiping out illiteracy through the efforts of RIF (Reading Is Fundamental). RIF is a nationwide volunteer reading program designed to spark youngsters' interest in books by letting them select, and keep, their own reading material.

Ruth Graves, president of RIF, said, "Last year, three million youngsters chose 10 million books in RIF projects."

McNamara started her "modest experiment" 16 years ago with a single project in Washington, D.C.; today there are 3,000 RIF programs throughout the United States.

Anne Richardson, RIF chairman of the board, told the gathering of about 200, "that Margy had devoted her entire life to see to it that young persons be given the responsiblity to grow into responsible adults."

Richardson said Kohler, 79, exemplified McNamara's teachings and strengths through her programs of youth tutoring other youth.

Kohler, a petite, white-haired former probation officer, founded the National Commission on Resources for Youth. She said, "It is truly a joy to be here, but I think it must be a case of mistaken identity.

"When a child has a project or role of authority -- where there's a general need for their being -- this creates a growing consciousness for them," she said, explaining the theory behind her program.

"I never met Mrs. McNamara," Kohler continued, "but I have the feeling she was very much in sympathy with me. But in a different way; that is, through RIF."

Other notables in the audience included McNamara's husband, Robert McNamara, former secretary of defense and past president of the World Bank; Ethel Kennedy; Lynda Robb, wife of Virginia's governor; RIF board member Jean Head Sisco; Sargent Shriver, and Elliot Richardson, attorney general in the Nixon administration.

Robert McNamara was pleased with RIF's choice of Kohler as the first recipient of the award to bear his wife's name.

"She has Margaret's charming, vivacious spirit," he said. "Someone mentioned to me that Judge Kohler was a generation older in chronological age to his wife , but really a generation younger in spirit."