Terry Sanford's tenure as president of Duke University ended the other day, and with it one of the most remarkable careers in contemporary American public life. This is not, to be sure, intended as a premature obituary; Sanford is youthful and vigorous at 68, and the possibility that the political itch will once again strike him cannot be discounted. But his departure from Duke closes out a significant chapter of his life, and provides a suitable opportunity to pay tribute both to his accomplishments and to the man himself.

To do so at this particular moment is especially appropriate, for Sanford's entire career has been spent in service to the educational causes to which the nation now seems determined to recommit itself. From his term as governor of North Carolina in the early '60s through his decade and a half at Duke, Sanford has worked -- perhaps more successfully than any other individual in the country -- to improve education at every level from kindergarten through graduate school. He lifted North Carolina's public schools off the bottom of the heap, then guided Duke into the elite of higher education; more important than either, perhaps, he set an example that has been widely emulated in many other states and the federal government as well.

Not many would have predicted such a record for Sanford when he entered the 1960 governor's race in North Carolina. He was then widely viewed as a callow and perhaps opportunistic professional politician; for that matter his eventual victory was something of a fluke that owed much to a three-way split of the "moderate" vote in the first Democratic primary. When he became an early supporter of John F. Kennedy, he alienated many conservative North Carolinians and raised further doubts about opportunism; his victory in the general election was by a margin relatively narrow for what was then still a solidly Democratic state.

Yet if his critics (among whom I, as a student editor at Chapel Hill, was numbered) had looked more objectively at Sanford's endorsement of Kennedy, they would have recognized it as a sign of the independence and courage he subsequently exercised with impressive frequency. Immediately upon taking office he presented a major education program to the General Assembly -- a body noted primarily for its rigid conservatism and provincialism -- and guided it to enactment. Teacher salaries went up 22 percent, a statewide system of community colleges was established, the North Carolina School of the Arts was created; the foundation was laid by Sanford for the more sophisticated and expensive educational improvements that may prove to be the chief legacy of the state's most recent ex-governor, James B. Hunt Jr..

Sanford was similarly enlightened on matters of race. In his inaugural address he said that "no group of our citizens can be denied the right to participate in the opportunities of first-class citizenship" -- fighting words, in the North Carolina of 1961 -- and then went about doing as much to guarantee that right as the political climate permitted. This was well before it had become established in law that government had a responsibility to take affirmative action to ensure civil rights, so Sanford's principal recourse was to encourage voluntary action, primarily through a series of Good Neighbor Councils that he set up around the state. The effect of his efforts was not so much to alter institutions -- that awaited the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- as to change the climate of opinion, to ease the way for white North Carolinians to accept desegregation without violence.

When his term expired in 1965 -- North Carolina's governor could not then succeed himself -- Sanford returned to the practice of law, though not with much evident enthusiasm. His real energies were reserved for the promotion of causes that interested him; he directed a major study of state governments, he became involved in educational television, he wrote a couple of intelligent if turgidly statesmanlike books. When Duke came calling in 1969, he leaped at the opportunity to reenter the educational wars, even as president of the archrival of his own alma mater, the University of North Carolina.

The wars at Duke were particularly bloody in 1969. The student protests had hit the campus so hard that the previous president had been driven away; there was immediate hostility toward Sanford, whom students were quick to dismiss as a mere "politician." But he handled the protests with humor and patience; recently he recalled, in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, that when a student leader angrily threatened to take over the administration building, he replied, "Well, if you take over Allen Building, take me with you, because I've been here for a month trying to take it over, and I haven't succeeded yet."

After that the students were Sanford's most ardent supporters, and he was freed to undertake the more difficult task of making Duke a first-class university. Though it already had many excellent faculty members and other assets purchased by the Duke tobacco fortune, it also had a reputation as a second-rate imitation (both academic and architectural) of an Ivy League school -- a place where Princeton's rejects went, where the principal business was partying. That business still goes on, but Duke after 16 years of Sanford is a very different place: an internationally respected university with strong connections in the corporate and political worlds, connections made in large measure through the sheer force of Sanford's reputation. Duke now even has the dubious distinction of being one of the country's "hot" universities, one that this year turned down seven applicants for each one accepted.

Duke has been Sanford's principal business since 1969, but not his only one. In 1972 and again in 1976 he sought the Democratic nomination for the presidency, though he never got close and indeed the second time around was widely ridiculed in the political press as a perpetual candidate, an heir to the tradition of Harold Stassen. This said more about the insularity and myopia of the press than about Sanford, who in both 1972 and 1976 was by far the most distinguished, experienced, thoughtful candidate in either party. He should have gotten the job -- he deserved it -- and it is our loss that he did not.

This is because throughout his career Terry Sanford has been that greatest of rarities, a genuinely serious public man. Like many others he loves the arena of politics, with its fireworks and schemes, but more than anything else he has been deeply engaged with the real issues of the day. By contrast with the lightweights, charlatans and mountebanks who have been wished upon us as public figures in recent experience, Sanford has committed his career not to obfuscation and duplicity but to the pursuit of excellence. He has achieved about as much of it as anyone could reasonably hope for; if the fishing hole is really where he's headed, he deserves nothing but whoppers.