My first meeting with the Rev. Gilbert V. Hartke, who died yesterday at 79, was over lunch at Olmsted's. It was 1938, and I knew only that my host had started a department of speech and drama at Catholic University of America.

We would know each other for 48 years, work together to further our mutual passion for theater. He was a glorious enthusiast, a great achiever, but you never forgot that he also was a priest. I never heard anyone call him by his first name. He was to all, from Dominican House to Duke Zeibert's, "Father."

His theater department would produce more than 600 plays. His staff and students would spread everywhere. His National Players would tour the land -- their first professional experience. Rodgers and Hammerstein would tap his speech expert, Josephine McGarry Callan, to train choral speech on Broadway.

Alan Schneider got his first directing assignment from Father. sw,-2 sk,2 ld,10 Philip Bosco got his first crack at Hamlet. Jon Voight had his start there. A government girl named Bibi Osterwald was there in a musical that former instructor Walter Kerr and former student Jean Kerr had written, "Sing Out Sweet Land," and went on with it to Broadway. Daniel Hugh Kelly of "Hardcastle and McCormick" and another TV regular, Bernie McInerney, got their training there.

Though his roles took more advantage of his size than his skills, Ed McMahon there began his trek to Johnny Carson. Pat Carroll, after years as a club comedian, would come up with her own remarkable "Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein." Frances Sternhagen went from there to Arena Stage, Broadway and a Tony.

After Father's playwriting course, Michael Cristofer would win a Pulitzer with "The Shadow Box," Jason Miller would write "That Championship Season" and John Pielmeier, "Agnes of God." Mari-Lyn Henry would become casting director for ABC, Leo Sullivan would go over to newspapering and the Kennedy Center. Leo Brady and Walter Kerr's "Yankee Doodle Boy" gave Warner Bros. ideas for Jimmy Cagney, and they collaborated on another musical that did go to Broadway, "Count Me In."

There can be no doubt that many of these success stories were inspired by Father's persistence in getting noted professionals to work with his students. Most faithfully came Helen Hayes, to live in a dorm while preparing a new play, William McCleery's "Good Morning, Miss Dove." That paid for a lot of bricks for the new complex that would bear Father's name.

This association with professionals of top standing inspired generations of students. They learned at first hand that it wasn't glamorous. It was work.

Kerr, who became drama critic for The New York Herald Tribune and The New York Times, said yesterday, "I think he was the most selfless man I ever knew." Said Voight, "Father was a friend of mine, as he was a friend of everyone who passed through his life . . . He made me feel I had great talent. He encouraged me. He saw some of my worst work and through all that he was consistently encouraging . . . He left many living monuments."

My closest associations with Father began in 1946, when it was realized that no blacks were admitted to Washington's theaters. With Patrick Hayes and the late Melvin D. Hildreth, we'd meet regularly to discuss ways to change this.

There was the glaring need for decent stages -- not the makeshifts of Constitution Hall, Uline's ice arena or the cramped stage area of the Capitol. Father was active on many fronts. In 1951, he supervised an Army film about service chaplains. Playing the Catholic chaplain was Ronald Reagan.

Ed McMahon, who saw Hartke last year at his 50th anniversary at CU, said yesterday, "He was so dynamic . . . one was overcome by his presence . . . he was a real visionary." Another student, actor Henry Gibson, said, "He was so generous and so bigger than life that one never thought Father could die. One of the lovely things about him was that no matter how rich or how poor or how obscure or how famous you'd become, if you ever studied with Father, you were always one of his children." Actress Mercedes McCambridge called him "a spiritual giant . . . He was the most -- not theatrical -- personification of the theater for me. Even more than Orson, and I never thought I'd say that about anyone."

Have you noted the dropping of names? His friends used to kid Father about his habit of mixing with the powerful, but so far as he was concerned, he was doing it to further one of his countless causes -- the restoration, say, of Ford's Theatre. Sometimes his name-chasing got a bit absurd. He posed with a now-forgotten movie star of notorious repute quite happily on the steps of the Shrine.

Or was it innocence? During the 1967-'68 New York theater season, two of its biggest hits were "Hair," famed for nudity and coauthored by former student Jerome Ragni, and "The Boys in the Band," about New York homosexuals, by another student, Mart Crowley. Father was delighted with such Big City acclaim and for some time he'd describe "The Boys in the Band" as being "about touring musicians." Was it innocence? Or did Father just purposely close his eyes?

He didn't mind failure. He figured that if you don't try something, you'll never know, so he always tried. One season he began a year of original student plays, but had to give it up. When the Olney Summer Theater was having a rough time under professional management and star salaries, Father made a deal with C.Y. Stephens, who owned the property as well as the High's dairy chain. "If I make it work, pay the rent, let me have it some day." And that's how Stephens ultimately gave his property for the CU outpost.

Father chose his associates for their gifts, but character certainly entered into such decisions. Those who stuck by him have been conspicuous for their faithfulness and at times it couldn't always have been easy. There were certain plays he didn't want to see done, but over time others such as Brady, Jim Waring and William Graham, his successor at CU, prevailed in their choices. Though he'd loosened his ties officially, Father remained as special assistant to the university's president. If ever he felt chagrin at what his successors were up to, he'd grin and give them his blessing.

What then made Father, this mixture of priest and show biz, tick?

He once summed up a philosophy:

"God's work includes striving for personal excellence. The wonderful thing about the performing arts is that it is yourself against perfection. You have to be as perfect as you can whether you act, write, produce, direct or design. You aren't in competition with another show or medium. You are in competition with yourself."