The headline in The Wall Street Journal yesterday said "End of a Chapter," although, for many in the news business, it was the end of an era.

Vermont Connecticut Royster, who began working for The Journal 50 years ago when it was fledgling financial sheet with a scant 35,000 readers -- and who has held, among other jobs, the positions of editor and Washington bureau chief -- announced he was giving up his weekly column after 24 years.

Even though he plans to write for the paper occasionally, the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes wrote yesterday that "I fear the day when readers -- or those present Journal editors -- come to think I've outrun my time. Besides, I already find myself repeating myself."

Typically, however, Royster did not go gently into retirement. His editorial swan song, for all his protestations about failing powers at the age of 71, had the usual artfully written edge to it.

A nostalgic reverie about past congressional leaders, for example, provoked the North Carolina native to remark that "it seems to me their counterparts today are, by comparison, a dull and somber group . . . Except for Tip O'Neill and Jesse Helms we watch only dancers in a stately quadrille."

As for President Reagan, Royster said he is "our first openly avowed conservative to occupy the White House (for two terms) since Herbert Hoover." He added later: "No one has ever called him a brilliant man. He is, rather, a man of deep instincts strengthened by long life and many years in the political wilderness."

Through the years, Royster has been known as a tough-guy journalist, a Cagney whose southern accent was strong but whose editorial voice managed to avoid being shrill.

"He's a lovable curmudgeon," said Albert Hunt, Washington bureau chief of The Journal. "But he's not a hater. He's as honest a conservative as you'd ever want to meet -- true to his principles -- an old fashioned southern conservative who is tough minded, but he doesn't have a mean streak."

Warren H. Phillips, chairman of Dow Jones & Company Inc., which owns The Journal, said that Royster was cherished at the paper as an independent thinker whose editorial philosophy was clear and easily understood by its readers.

"It wasn't any 'on the one hand, on the other hand,' wishy-washy approach to world issues," Phillips said. "Everyone knew where he and the paper stood in the years when he was the editor."

In announcing the end of Royster's column, which was called "Thinking Things Over," Journal Editor Robert L. Bartley said the title could be revived at a later date, a suggestion that caused several Journal officials to wonder if Bartley plans to take over the space himself eventually.

Bartley said the column, originally titled "Thinking It Over," has been used by other past editors of The Journal. "It may be revived in the future; that's kind of been the pattern," Bartley said. "But I wouldn't want to say we have any plans to do anything definite with it soon."

For friends of Royster, the only solace is that he will continue writing for the paper occasionally. But as he put it from his home in North Carolina: "I will no longer be compelled to do it once a week. Once you become a septuagenarian, you hate to be compelled to do anything."

There are those who say this characteristic has not come suddenly to Royster in his seventies.

Noting that even Royster's bosses had difficulty compelling him to do or think something he resisted, Phillips recalled one discussion with Royster and the late Barney Kilgore, the man credited with building The Journal into the national paper that it is today.

"Barney said something and Roy [as Royster was known] disagreed. Barney persisted and suddenly Roy said, 'I can't argue with ignorance,' and stomped out of the room," Phillips said, laughing. "So much for deference to the boss."

Royster was known to be almost as much trouble for presidents. Friends tell of the time he interviewed President-elect John F. Kennedy, who had spent some time researching Royster's editorials to try to find something, anything, he could praise the editor for writing on his behalf.

Finally Kennedy found a meeting of the minds on tariffs -- The Journal was for free trade and Kennedy wanted to cut tariff barriers. Greeting Royster with a warm thank you for his support on this issue, he reportedly received this reply: "Well, Mr. President, The Wall Street Journal was for free trade before you were president, and I guess it will be for free trade afterwards."

Later, to the chagrin of Kennedy's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, the president called on Royster at a press conference. When Salinger asked later why Kennedy had called on Royster, who could be counted on to ask a tough question, Kennedy said: "The little bastard was the only one whose name I knew."

Asked about the story, which has surfaced in several books now, Royster said: "I think he was just being cute."

Royster said his great grandfather started the tradition of naming children in the family after states; the idea was to keep them from being confused with any other Roysters in the neighborhood. Through the generations, there have been Uncle Ark, whose real name was Arkansas Delaware, and other male Roysters called Wisconsin Illinois and Iowa Michigan. The girls fared better, he said, with names like Georgia Louisiana and Virginia Carolina.

Indeed, throughout his life, his has not been a name one forgets easily, and Royster said that although it hurt him as a kid, it helped him as a journalist. Then he chided a caller, who had been reading him for decades: "I bet you can't remember a thing I've written but you remember the name."