For almost two years a small nucleus of people shepherded the new mural at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library from a suggestion in a letter to a 56-by-7-foot reality. And the coach behind the project has been Nora Drew Gregory, a 72-year-old former elementary schoolteacher for whom the mural has proven the biggest history lesson of her career.

Mother of an astronaut (Air Force Col. Frederick Gregory), sister of a scientist (surgeon Charles R. Drew, who perfected the separation of blood plasma) and aunt of City Councilwoman Charlene Drew Jarvis, Gregory has touched no small part of history herself. The philosophy of her family, she says, was simple: "Just as you didn't waste money, you didn't waste talent either. It meant do the best you could do."

But it has been the mural that brought Gregory herself out of the background late in life and onto the public stage for the first time.

"I got involved in the library because I needed rescuing," she says. "My husband died suddenly and I just forgot there was a world out there . . . I had been in the little clubs in the city but nothing ever, ever like this . . . out in the public. I just talked to children in a little classroom."

Today, as vice president of the library board and chair of the library's mural project, Gregory will be mistress of ceremonies at the unveiling of artist Don Miller's mural -- focal point of the highly successful $500,000 fund-raising project that has rallied the community from top to bottom.

Gregory is a handsome woman, with deep gray waves, which one day last week matched a girlish gray sweater and skirt, and a smile that she keeps in check -- until she talks of children and education. But she has a certain skip in her quiet voice as she describes the success. "The library has been the conversation at club meetings and social gatherings throughout the city," she says. "When we talked about inscribing names in bronze for gifts of $1,000, it was amazing how many thousand dollars appeared.

"A law student in her early twenties brought in her mother and gave a donation of cash, ten $100 bills, in honor of her mother's father," says Hardy Franklin, director of the D.C. public libraries. Since July the library has collected $1,000 in a plastic bucket at the front door, given in part, Franklin says, by winos who have taken to emptying their pockets before they leave the library.

Gregory came to the board in 1977 to fill out the term of her husband Francis Gregory, principal of the old Armstrong High School, an assistant superintendent of D.C. schools and the first black president of the library board.

Her work with the library and the mural has been her personal revitalization. "I was always that lady who walked a little to the rear or to the left of her husband. The first time I had to speak I was shaking so," Gregory says.

But her motivation to make the mural a reality, she says, was the same as in the classroom.

"This is an educational institution," she says of the library, and by extension the mural. "I was just so interested that everybody should know that this freedom we have today for our children was hard earned, hard to come by. 'Stony the road we trod.' And I always want them to know (black) history as much as they know all the history of the world, America and Europe, and to know they are part of it.

"Some of our grandchildren take everything for granted. I want our young people to honor the people who made it possible for our youngsters to have so very much."

Born in Foggy Bottom and a graduate of Dunbar High School and the old Miner Teacher College, Gregory taught fourth through sixth grades in the local schools for more than 30 years. In those days, she says, "some of us felt the history that the boys and girls in school had been learning over the years was just a bit one-sided. We would research the part blacks had played in the establishment and growth of our country. This was an individual idea but many teachers had that dedication."

The mural project, the first fund-raising drive by the District library system since it was established in 1896, was suggested to the board by artist Miller early in 1984. A mural had been included in the original architectural plans for the library, and though space for it remained, money to pay for it was never found.

Once the idea was approved, Malan Strong, president of the Friends of the King Library, gave the artist $750 to do a rendering. Then Gregory was set in motion. At first the goal was a modest $250,000, to cover Miller's fee of $200,000 and any unforeseen expenses, but Barbara Washington, the former city lobbyist brought in to help the project, thought the initial response indicated the committee could realistically expect to double that and winnow the library's "wish list" of projects.

The gifts, which will also support other library needs, such as deacidification of the books, included a donation of $60,000 last week from Citicorp/Citibank, carpeting given by the Hecht Co. and $50,000 from the Philip L. Graham Fund. Mayor Marion Barry pledged to match one-for-one citizen contributions with city funds. So far that's amounted to more than $100,000. Singer Jeffrey Osborne, an honorary cochairman of the project, volunteered to help organize and perform at a concert held last night, and underwritten by Coors Brewery.

The arm-twisters -- who consisted of Washington, Gregory and Franklin, assisted by Strong and John Hazel, president of the library trustees -- decided to conduct a "quiet campaign." None of them had been involved in a project this big, and Washington had only raised $5,000 once for Mayor Barry.

The committee sent out 5,000 pieces of direct mail, applied for about 75 grants, made about 100 in-person appeals, placed a few newspaper ads and distributed thousands of brochures about the mural. "We tailored a lot of the work to our personal contacts. I knew I had access to the so-called halls of access. I knew I could get through to them and make the case," says Washington.

"But one of the beautiful things about our campaign is that we haven't had to go out and beg. We would just present the idea," says Gregory. "All of us have grown. These young ones and this old one." And when she expressed her nervousness about the monetary goal, Gregory found Washington a soothing guide. "Barbara would say, you just wait, toward the end of the campaign there will be many who want to get on the bandwagon. I would say it's true."

If the mural has dominated Gregory's life for the past two years, she has carved out time for other things as well. Friday she was getting up at 6 a.m. to tune in the NASA reports on Channel 56 and watch her astronaut son, the ground communicator for the space shuttle mission, talk to the shuttle commander.

"I sit there early in the morning and listen to him and say, 'Dear God, help him to help bring them back to safety,' " she says.

But today, Martin Luther King's birthday commemoration, is in a sense Nora Gregory's day, though she's reluctant to admit it.

"I was talking to a group of children once about some of the people in my family," she says. "And a boy kept watching me and watching me and finally he asked, 'What contributions have you made to civilization?'

"We just stared at one another," she says, laughing. Now she has her answer.