When Nancy Hanks was chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, sparks flew. "Lips pursed, eyes blazing over her granny glasses at whomever was challenging her with ideas," Hanks presided over the vast expansion of federal support for the arts in America during the 1970s.

"The beauty of her life will echo endlessly in the glory of the American arts," said Geraldine Stutz, a former member of the National Council on the Arts, as part of the memorial tribute to Hanks yesterday at the Washington Cathedral. Stutz recalled not only the granny glasses image, but seeing Hanks in the endowment corridors "with a pail of soapy water to scrub away offending marks the staff had failed to clean from walls that should speak well for the arts."

Hundreds of those who had known and loved Hanks came to pay their respects yesterday and were treated to an unusual church service featuring a dancer, a poet, a jazz pianist and a chamber orchestra--all chosen to perform works that Hanks, who died Jan. 7, had especially liked. Hanks was chairman of the arts endowment from 1969 to 1977.

Yesterday afternoon, Congress passed and sent to the president for signature a bill designating the renovated Post Office complex on Pennsylvania Avenue, where the federal cultural agencies will be housed, as the Nancy Hanks Center.

Most of those at the cathedral were from the ranks of arts bureaucrats and lobbyists who have grown up in and around the arts endowment and its sister, the National Endowment for the Humanities, plus assorted politicians and artists.

Jamie and Phyllis Wyeth were there, as were folk singer and actor Theodore Bikel, Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), the Smithsonian's S. Dillon Ripley, Kennedy Center Chairman Roger Stevens (who, before Hanks' tenure, was the first chairman of the arts endowment) and J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery of Art. The readings from the Bible were by Leonard Garment, the Nixon administration counsel who helped launch the endowment in 1965, and by Michael W. Straight, who was Hanks' deputy.

"I think Nancy would have liked it," Stutz said later of the service. "And also," she added, "it didn't go on too long."

Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.) came up to Stutz and said he liked her speech. "You got a copy of that?" asked the chairman of the subcommittee that controls federal arts funding. "I'd like to put it in the (Congressional) Record."

"Oh, that would be lovely," said Stutz, promising to mail a copy of the eulogy to him.

Yates said the service was "very sensitive, very touching and wholly in keeping with the spirit that was Nancy's."

After the service, at a reception in St. Albans Guild Hall, sculptor Richard Hunt of Chicago said he was pleased that his 5 1/2-foot-high cast bronze work, "Fish Curve Hybrid," which Hanks had owned, had been placed in the cathedral for the service.

"I liked seeing it there with the flowers," Hunt said. "She had it in her house in Georgetown and would put flowers around it at the different seasons."

Poet William Meridith, who read his poem, "Notre Dame de Chartres," at the service, said afterward, "I didn't know Hanks very well . . . You didn't have to know her long before you felt you knew her very well . . . Of all the writers who knew her, I was the one who was available." He said Eudora Welty had been asked to come and read at the service, but was unable to.

Livingston Biddle, who succeeded Hanks as endowment chairman, said, "All the things she began--new theater companies, orchestras, dance companies--are taking shape, putting down their roots . . . If we could just maintain the momentum . . ."