Eugene Lang has never been comfortable being rich. Getting rich was definitely not one of the imperatives in his upbringing by his socialist immigrant father.

Sharing, on the other hand, was.

"We didn't have very much to give, but what we had we shared," he said yesterday in a Supreme Court conference room, just before he received this year's American Institute for Public Service Jefferson Award for "greatest public service benefiting the disadvantaged."

Gene Lang is still sharing -- $6 million a few years ago to Swarthmore College, which he attended on a scholarship, then $5 million for the New School for Social Research in New York City, where he sits on the board.

And then, in 1981, he pledged a relatively small amount to relatively few people -- a class of sixth-graders in a public school in East Harlem -- and in so doing may have started something "really big." Something that could spread across the country and ultimately, he hopes, revolutionalize the educational system.

What Lang did was to go back to his own old elementary school, Public School 121, to give a talk to the graduating class.

It is not, as the award presenter noted, "an easy thing to find a way to get and keep the attention of a group of inner-city 12-year-olds." Lang recalls that as he watched the roomful of squirming, restless children, sw,-2 sk,2 he became increasingly uncomfortable with his prepared speech. By the time he got up to speak, he had trashed it altogether.

But he got their attention, all right. As one kid interviewed on "60 Minutes" a few months ago put it: "Who was this person, coming out of nowhere, ripping up his speech and just throwing this money at us? I thought he was joking."

He wasn't. Lang pledged $500 a year for each youngster in the class, to be applied to college tuition. Moreover, those who graduated and got into college would have their tuition guaranteed.

And that still wasn't enough.

"You know," Lang says, "when you have money, the easiest thing to do is give it away. I don't just give money -- I think that's a cop-out."gave his Saturdays as well, and found counselors and tutors and formed a social safety net for the class of 1982.

The expected dropout rate for that group as it moved through the upper grades would be about 75 percent. For Lang's kids, who have a year more to go, it's 2 percent.

* And this year the program became the basis for the "I Have a Dream Foundation," which provides "technical assistance" for interested people in "more than a dozen U.S. cities" to start similar programs.

"By the end of this week," Lang told the audience at the awards presentation, "more than 400 youngsters from five of the poorest neighborhoods of New York City" will formally become what he is calling "Young Dreamers," sponsored for college, as he sponsored his 50 kids.

Eugene Lang is not prepossessing. At 67, married for 40 years, father of three and grandfather of four, he is a little gray and balding quite a lot. But when he talks about his program, he is transformed. His dark eyes sparkle. Occasionally his voice breaks, just a little.

On Saturdays, he says, he took the kids to the opera. He took them to "their first Broadway play ever." That was at the Circle in the Square, where the youngsters sat around backstage afterward with the star -- Christopher (Superman plus) Reeve. "When they start," he says, "a lot of kids at this stage think they want to be actors or actresses. And this was a great thing -- to talk about their dreams.

"That is very important, because there is no aspiration any kid has that is not a legitimate one, however the odds may be stacked against it. You don't get anything from talking people out of great aspirations, by saying, 'Listen, you can't be a great actor or a great musician -- train yourself to be an automobile mechanic.'

"There is," says Lang, "something morally offensive about any system of education which sort of puts people in classes -- those who are educated to become vocationally proficient and those to whom the vast opportunity of self-development becomes a possibility largely on economic grounds . . .

*"The esprit of the group, and the relationships to me and to the volunteers who work with me, became the most stable factor in their lives. Because their home lives, in many cases, are very erratic, very unstable. Sometimes these kids are put out on the street, literally with no place to go . . . because of the convolutions of some of the family engagements. We keep them straight. We have families where everyone is on dope . . . and they stay clean and they're proud of it.

"If they need money, we help get them jobs that are compatible with their school hours and we show them what it means to get a bank account and how to use it.

"We take so much for granted, growing up in our environment. We don't realize the fears, the inhibitions, the lack of certainties these youngsters have with the conventional institutions that are available to all of us."

In the beginning, once REFAC, Lang's international technology-marketing company, began to take off, he thought the reforms, the integration could be accomplished politically. He became a close ally of Hubert Humphrey, and the national treasurer of the liberal-anticommunist Americans for Democratic Action. But "when Hubert died," he says, "there was no one else comparable to him in stature and ability to exercise effective leadership in achieving the social goals that I feel are desirable."

So he decided to do it alone.

"I Have a Dream," Lang says, "is the core of what I am trying to accomplish, although the odds are very great, because fundamentally we're still fighting a rear-guard action against the inadequacies of the public education system as it reacts on these inner city kids." And in his acceptance speech he said, "We must encourage inner-city youngsters and their families to see themselves not as outcasts, but as members of the total community. This is true integration."

* Also receiving public service awards yesterday were Secretary of State George Shultz (who wasn't there) and Texas multimillionare H. Ross Perot (who was).

There were the 16-year-old twins Sonya and Tanya Witt of West Palm Beach, Fla., who adopted a Yucatecan village; Philip Viall, who specializes in inventing electronic equipment for the handicapped; and Therese Dozier, once an abandoned waif on the streets of Saigon, now a history teacher in Columbia, S.C.

And there was one special group of recipients -- Robert Hayes, Wall Street attorney turned advocate for the New York homeless; Atlanta antidrug campaigner Ruby Ferrell Callaway; and Fannie Royston, Pittsburgh's all-purpose volunteer for the poor -- who brought a misting to the eyes of Gene Lang.

"What really impresses me," he said, "are those people here who give their lives and intensity of commitment . . . There's always a presumptive goodness imputed to money or having money. And that doesn't really send me. But I think that people who have nothing to give but themselves, so they do give themselves -- that I find tremendously moving."