Year after year, the improbable telephone hookups were made, linking the rabbi here, the academic in Charlottesville, Va., and the KGB suspect in Moscow.

Dozens of conference calls joined the voices of Rabbi Gedalyah Engel of the Purdue University Hillel Foundation, Prof. Woodford McClellan and Irina Astakhova McClellan.

The first was made in 1977, the last at the end of 1985. They were conversations of frustration, pain and fear -- and of hope and commitment.

The hopes won out. And when Irina McClellan, the KGB suspect, at last set foot in America nine weeks ago to be reunited with her husband, the 51-year-old University of Virginia professor, the first people she thanked out loud were the people of this heartland community.

Today, she and her husband came to West Lafayette to give thanks in person.

Here in the City Council chambers, standing between an American flag and the blue-and-gold flag of Indiana, Irina McClellan, 47, said, "These people are a part of my life forever."

Clutching a key to the city that Mayor Sonya Margerum said would double as "a key to our hearts," McClellan paid tribute to Engel, who first organized the conference calls that became the emotional lifeline between the McClellans. The couple last saw each other in 1974 and were barred thereafter by Soviet authorities from reunion until Jan. 30. (The Soviet reversal was regarded as a good-will gesture connected to the November summit. Irina's daughter Elena Kochetkova, 26, was also allowed to emigrate.)

Engel first learned of the McClellans' plight early in 1977. He decided to take up their cause to broaden his student organization's activism, which at that point was focused on the situation of Soviet Jews denied permission to emigrate to the West -- the "refuseniks."

Soon an interfaith coalition, the Committee on Human Rights in the Soviet Union, was circulating petitions throughout the West Lafayette-Lafayette area. "It was a major concern springing out of the plight of Soviet Jews," the rabbi recalled.

"We expanded it to become an ecumenical effort. Our churches and ministerial groups chose someone. They chose Irina, partly because she was married to a history professor, and there were no personal connections."

Each year the mayors of the neighboring cities here in northwestern Indiana issued proclamations in support of the reunification of the McClellans. Petition drives added thousands of signatures from Americans here who were concerned enough to pick up a pen. Repeated attempts to deliver the petitions to the Soviet Embassy in Washington were rebuffed at the door of the 16th Street mansion.

Nevertheless, said the rabbi, "the point had been made. They knew we cared." In the end, more than 50,000 names were gathered for the McClellans.

Meanwhile, Engel had thought of attempting a conference telephone call that would bring together at the same moment Woodford McClellan in Charlottesville, his wife in Moscow, and the students of the Purdue Hillel and members of the human rights committee.

In Moscow, Irina McClellan was astonished. "It was quite unexpected," she said. "But for nine years, the rabbi was part of my life in Moscow. Now he's part of my life always. He's a very strong, very determined man. There were times when only he kept it all going."

Three or four times a year, the Lafayette group arranged such a call, via AT&T operators at Indiana Bell headquarters in downtown Indianapolis. Much of the last seven years, the calls were handled by Anne Stewart, one of a diminishing number of special-service operators who work out of a pleasant, carpeted center on the 10th floor of the telephone company building. Today, the McClellans, accompanied by the rabbi and the press, dropped by to say thank you.

"Now there's Charlottesville," said Stewart, plugging in one of her lines on the switchboard to demonstrate how the calls worked. "And there's the rabbi in West Lafayette." She made another connection: "There's Pittsburgh the clearing point for overseas calls from here . . . and there's Moscow." She made the final connection, swiveled around on her chair and beamed at the McClellans and the reporters.

"It looks very simple," said Irina McClellan with a rueful smile. "It wasn't at all."

"We owe everything to these people," said McClellan, a quiet-spoken man with gray hair and a gray mustache who speaks Russian and whose academic specialty is Russian social life and custom since the Bolshevik Revolution.

"The biggest problem was the language," Stewart said. "If the Moscow operators didn't want to speak English to us, they didn't. Some times, it could take days to get through."

Over the years, the conference calls became moments for Hoosiers to ask their congressmen and U.S. senators to speak with Irina McClellan. Many did, but few encountered so dramatic a moment as the time a congressman was told by Irina -- as her husband listened -- that she was contemplating suicide.

Over the years of separation, the conference calls remained both consolation and torment for the McClellans.

"There were times when Woody and I were very upset and we didn't know what to say to each other," recalled Irina, who speaks fluent English and supported herself for a decade as a private language tutor. Authorities had fired her from official teaching positions in retaliation for her marrying an American.

"You wanted to hear each other's voice, but there was so much we could not say. And the years went on and on -- and what was I to do, go on suffering?"

In addition, she said, a conference call is "very difficult in the Soviet system. Sometimes I couldn't hear what everyone was saying. So the rabbi would talk to Woody, Woody would pass it on to me, but I couldn't hear what the rabbi was saying. Sometimes it took a very long time to get all the connections. The American operators were always very polite, very nice."

bat10 Today, the operators presented their favorite Moscow caller with a dozen pink roses and a small plaque: "AT&T Communications welcomes you to the United States."

Engel mused about what the calls must have meant to a woman he did not meet until this morning, when he greeted her at Indianapolis Airport at the start of the couple's Indiana weekend.

"My God, in that society, her friends had to drop her. And her daughter Lena was unable to go on to higher education because her mother had become a kind of refusenik. So we wanted her to know there was somebody more than only her husband supporting her, that there was support from ordinary Americans."

During the nine years of calls, Irina said, she was interrogated many times by the KGB, ostracized by friends and family, and lived a life of isolation. At the same time, she said, because of the rabbi's presence in her life, she began to rediscover the Russian Orthodox Church. Now, she said, she hopes that she and her husband, who were married in a civil ceremony in Moscow in 1974, will be remarried in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Washington.

bat10 "I think worrying about Irina made us aware of the dangers of the world," Engel said during a drive here from Indianapolis. "As Americans, we often want to ignore reality, and what we are trying to tell people is that you can't ignore reality. We're asking the question 'Why are you being so complacent about issues of life and death?' Most people don't want to see injustice, because then they will have to act."

About 40 people were present when the McClellans arrived at the West Lafayette City Hall, a small, low-slung municipal center on the outskirts of downtown and across the street from a McDonald's.

Mayor Margerum and Lafayette Mayor James Riehle both proclaimed the McClellans honorary citizens of the two cities.

Irina, a small woman with brown eyes, short red hair and a direct manner of speaking, recalled that through much of her life she had felt herself drawn to America. Now, she said, "during all those nine years these people were a greater part of my life. I want to say a very big thanks . . . "

And she burst into tears.

Recovering, she continued, "I'm really very thankful to you all. I have to help those still in the Soviet Union. The rest of my life I will always be with you . . . "

Her husband then said, "You sustained her and you sustained me." He said the people of the community had answered the question as to whether they could make a difference.

"You've given us our families, you've given us our lives. God bless you."