The Rev. Gilbert V. Hartke, who founded the drama department at Catholic University as a summer experiment, will be honored tonight with a testimonial dinner, a climax to his 50th year with the university.

Such former associates as Helen Hayes, Ed McMahon, Walter and Jean Kerr, Philip Bosco and Pat Carroll are scheduled to be on hand at the Shoreham Hotel, along with a passel of national and Washington notables. Money raised will support the Father Hartke Endowment Fund.

As the new assistant drama critic of The Washington Post, I first met Father Hartke in 1938 through his overworked ally, the telephone; the occasion was a chance to meet Himself for lunch at G Street's Olmstead Grill. Though in time he would come to resemble Spencer Tracy, that afternoon he looked like Clark Gable; co-owner Jimmy Brahms brought over several of his regulars to meet the movie face with the turned-around collar.

A child actor in films and on stage before his ordination, Hartke talked that day of his dreams for the drama department. He hoped to nurture it into a place where those with theatrical ambitions could hone their skills in "friendly but disciplined" surroundings. I immediately lost my heart to him.

Born into a Chicago family -- four sons and four daughters -- of German-Irish extraction, Hartke always has leaned to the Irish, among them his scenic-lighting-producing expert, James D. Waring. His first acting guest that summer of '38 was Sara Allgood, the Abbey Theater favorite who had just captivated New York in Paul Vincent Carroll's "Shadow and Substance."

In those days the drama department performed in what is now the music building (after World War II it would be housed in an old movie house moved from an Army camp near Norfolk, which Hartke had scrounged from the government for $1). The staff was headed by a magnificently attuned speech coach, Josephine McGarry Callan, two instructors named Leo Brady and Walter Kerr (who would marry one of his students, Jean) and a young fellow restless to expand his directing career, Alan Schneider.

Often one-acters, the plays were drawn from such familiars as Paul Claudel, Lady Gregory, James M. Barrie and George Ade, but there were originals, too -- several by playwriting instructor Brady, who would combine with Walter Kerr in 1939 for a musical they titled "Yankee Doodle Boy." That salute to George M. Cohan caught the interest of Warner Bros. and would lead to the film with James Cagney.

In the encouragement of new plays, Hartke also has accepted potential embarrassment gracefully, as when, in one season, two of his students created two of New York's more sensational successes, Jimmy Ragno with "Hair" and Mart Crowley with "The Boys in the Band." At first Hartke thought the latter was about a touring orchestra. Or, perhaps, preferred to. After her daughter Mary MacArthur's death at 19, Helen Hayes sought consolation in her church, which drew the actress closer to the priest. One season she set aside 10 weeks of her tight schedule to "buy bricks" for the projected Hartke Theater by appearing in a new play with his students, "Good Morning, Miss Dove," and insisting that she save hotel costs by living in a dorm with the students. Later she would end her stage career in the completed Hartke by playing a role to which she was uniquely suited, the Irish, convent-bred Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

During that run, when her voice failed during the day -- but not so you'd notice it at night -- doctors told her she was allergic to dust. "To think," said Hayes, "that ever since I was 5, I've been living, by choice, in the very places where dust is inevitable -- backstage."

What Hartke created on the Michigan Avenue campus was an atmosphere in which the young could test their skills, be it in acting, playwriting, directing, design or management. But still it was an atmosphere rooted in the general liberal arts tradition -- "because people, whether bound for the theater or out of it, have to be civilized above all else," as Hartke's successor as drama department chairman, William H. Graham, has phrased it. After four Army years I returned, in 1946, aware, as some 12 million others were, of my home town's failings. "The Capital of the Western World," as we took to calling it, lacked certain civilizing influences.

The most grievous of these failings were the city's racial "customs." Blacks, for example, could appear on stage at the National Theatre but not in the audience; they could appear in the auditorium but not on the stage of Constitution Hall.

A dynamic politician in those Harry Truman years was the head of the city's Democratic party, the late Melvin D. Hildreth. He summoned a meeting of those who publicly had expressed outrage about this discrimination: Hartke, impresario Patrick Hayes and myself. Because he was trying to restore Ford's Theatre from its warehouse shell, Hildreth saw that making the building not just a museum, but a "working stage," would be one way to alter the discrimination policy. The public responded overwhelmingly to a mass meeting we called in the late winter of '46 and all sorts of actions resulted.

These activities seemed perfectly logical for a politician (also president of the Circus Fans of America!) and a concert manager, but how did they jibe with the roles of a priest and a critic? Our colleagues looked askance. But, thanks to Hartke's nonchalance about disapproving murmurs, I learned one of the great lessons of my life: Although the critic must avoid boosterism, he -- as a priest -- has civic responsibilities like everyone else.

The foursome stuck together and after Mel Hildreth's death, we were joined by another politician, Ralph Becker, of the Washington Board of Trade. What could the board do to further the arts in Washington?

At that time, children younger than 14 were not allowed on Washington stages, keeping out such hits as "The Member of the Wedding," "South Pacific" and "The King and I." At Becker's urgings, the board created a cultural committee that, with the invaluable assistance of a former Washington child performer, Helen Hayes, and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, got the labor law changed by Congress.

In time, there were other matters to be faced by the same persuaders: a permanent home for Arena Stage, the creation of a "cultural center" where great ballet and opera companies might perform, the notion of a national endowment for the arts.

I go into these civic matters because in Hartke's case it sometimes has been seen as beyond the call of duty. As a priest, he has conducted countless weddings, baptisms and funerals. His visitation list has expanded with the years; when some of his projects failed (and they have, resoundingly), he has accepted failure and gone on.

Always he has gone beyond the call of duty, pressing on in local and national concerns. He's persistent, manipulative, stubborn, never gives up.

And may he never.