On his door at the Howard University School of Law, the sign announces Herbert O. Reid Sr., Charles Hamilton Houston distinguished professor of law.

On his door at the District Building, where Reid is officially legal counsel to Mayor Marion Barry and unofficially the e'minence grise and Mr. Fixit of the administration, the sign says, "Grant me patience Lord but please hurry."

As indictments, controversy and rumors escalate around the mayor and his associates, Reid -- the distinguished professor in a hurry -- is increasingly the man at the storm center.

Two years ago it was Reid who, in attempting to explain the mayor's association with convicted cocaine dealer Karen K. Johnson, described it as a "personal relationship." This year it was Reid whom Barry called on after a young woman complained that the mayor had shown up at her house in a jogging suit and attempted to force his attentions on her. It is Reid with whom Barry huddles when an Ivanhoe Donaldson or an Alphonse Hill runs afoul of the law. It was even Reid who arranged bail last month for Effi Barry's mother when she was charged with torching a man's home in Prince George's County.

Now, as new reports of payoffs to Johnson echo in the news media, it is Reid who has filed an unprecedented lawsuit, demanding that U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova disclose any evidence of wrongdoing by Barry, and seeking unspecified sanctions against diGenova and the news media for "conspiring ... to assault the integrity of the grand jury system."

"He admits I am the best politician in the world; he is the best lawyer," says Barry. "His biggest contribution is to constantly say to me, 'Don't let it get you down, keep your head high and {expletive} 'em.' "

But Reid, who will be 72 next month, is a worried man these days. What he sees at stake in the current investigation of District officials is not simply the honor of this particular city administration, but the future of the civil rights movement.

"The reason I am here is not my friendship for Marion -- that would be enough -- but my interest in where the movement is and how important it is now for these new managers to govern successfully," he says.

Seated at a conference table, Reid focuses on a large clock across the room, staring as if turning back the years. He talks about Reconstruction after the Civil War, when black politicians were elected to Congress and other offices. Despite an era of corruption that produced scandals from the Tweed Ring in New York to the Grant administration in Washington, "they used the indiscretion and excesses of blacks successfully to disenfranchise blacks and take them out of elected office for about 50 years."

He speaks with the sadness and weariness of a mentor and scholar whose most important lessons go unheard.

"We {have to} have a peculiar and unusual dedication to ethics, clean politics and clean government. We cannot survive believing whatever whitey did we can do," he says, and the tone of exasperation in his voice indicates he's been saying that a lot lately. Compounding his frustration is a nagging guilt that the civil rights movement, a crusade that appealed to the country's rectitude, is partly to blame for some of today's troubles.

"I think the real tragedy of that period ..." Reid says, is that "we didn't emphasize how important ethical behavior would be in these new positions." Barry, for example, says his generation of politicians is still motivated to go "against the grain" of public propriety. Says the mayor: "The same thing that made us rebel against segregation makes us rebel against the perceived way to act."

But Reid, speaking of a generation, not just one government, says there must be a realization that the long civil rights struggle "was not to replace one group of thugs with another."

The Movement Veteran

Reid's long view of today's troubles, and his proprietary hold on the movement's success, comes from direct involvement. "His hand has been in every single civil rights legal initiative since the 1950s," says Althea Simmons, the director of the NAACP Washington bureau and a Howard law graduate. When anyone in the movement is faced with a difficult problem requiring a breakthrough strategy, says Mary Berry, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a Howard professor, Reid "is the first person you think of calling."

As a young attorney Reid worked on the Washington school desegregation case that was decided with the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan. He argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969 to win the right for Adam Clayton Powell to regain his seat in Congress after the Harlem congressman was censured by the House of Representatives for, among other things, misuse of funds. He wrote pivotal briefs arguing in two celebrated affirmative action cases, Board of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke and Weber v. Kaiser Aluminum.

In the early 1970s he was one of the principal attorneys who looked into the police infiltration of the Black Panthers. When Barbara Sizemore, the controversial former superintendent of D.C. schools who once said children didn't need to read, was dismissed, Reid presided over the school board hearings on her firing. He was a defense attorney in 1974 for one of the men convicted in the killings of seven Hanafi Muslims, the largest mass murder case in the city's history. As a member of the board of trustees of the University of the District of Columbia, he was point man in the public defense of its president, Robert L. Green, who was dismissed for misspending university funds.

His former students include Judge Damon Keith of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Gabrielle McDonald of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, former Richmond mayor Henry Marsh, former president of the National Urban League Vernon Jordan, D.C. Corporation Counsel Frederick D. Cooke Jr. and D.C. City Council Chairman David A. Clarke.

But right now Reid is most visible as Marion Barry's personal attorney, a job created by Barry and financed by city funds on a consultant basis. The heavyset, gregarious lawyer moves through the District Building like a battleship, roaring and laughing in his thick North Carolina drawl. He is there at press conferences, peering over his half-moon glasses, tugging on his thick black beard and listening thoughtfully. Some go so far as to call him "the glue" holding the Barry administration together.

Reid, however, plays down that notion. In the first place, he says, the administration isn't falling apart. In the second, he says, he is doing what he's doing because he believes "there are important stakes for the race."

The Lure of Combat

"He has a very keen sense of duty," says the Rev. David Eaton, minister of All Souls Unitarian Church, which Reid attends, " ... a sense of righteous indignation ..."

In addition, says longtime friend Vernon Jordan, "Herb has the need to be a decisive factor in someone's modus operandi. He enjoys that kind of dependence on his mind and he hasn't gotten enough of it. With Marion I think it's a mutual dependency. They are hooked on the need for one another."

Mulling that over, Reid says he does prefer action and controversy over the safe, predictable areas. "I never followed things on the basis of popularity," he says.

Fourteen years ago, near the completion of the Hanafi trial, Reid had a heart attack. He slowed down some, lost some weight, but was hospitalized again last year. This past semester, while working full time at the District Building, he still taught three courses, although he says he's thinking this year at Howard will be his last. He works long hours, drives fast. Reporters spotted him doing 70 miles an hour in his Mercedes on the way to a Barry staff retreat in West Virginia, and he occasionally drives all the way to North Carolina just for barbecue. His sister Thelma Whitehead says she has given up chastising him about his schedule.

"I seem to get along better if I am active," Reid says. "My whole physical system does better. I even sleep better. If you are doing something else, you don't have time to listen to your heart and your breathing and wonder if the big one is coming on."

The gruff laugh echoes through the maze of offices.

The Roaring Reputation

Like many others, Marlene Johnson, Reid's special assistant, quaked slightly when she heard she would be working for him.

"I was scared. No self-respecting law student didn't know who Herb Reid was. The day we met he wore his customary scowl and apparently he had come in to tell the mayor who he wanted to work for him," recalls Johnson. The mayor won. Johnson had been a legal counsel to Barry when he was a member of the City Council. "Dr. Reid and I started feeling each other out. I had heard him roar ... I was terrorized." But after a few weeks, she says, "I found his sharp wit."

Now she is his palace guard and interpreter, discovering for the timid what Reid thinks of this or that. "A lot of people around here are scared of him ... In a meeting he will begin to bite somebody's head off and it is up to me to smooth it over and let them feel they are not dumb."

Describing a recent meeting on a plan to alleviate prison overcrowding, Barry says, "Fred Cooke was saying, we have to convince the public it makes sense. And Herb said, 'Well, what about starting with the mayor and me.' It wasn't negative. He makes people relax and focus."

In the Howard University family he is nothing less than a lion. "He is abrasive, cutting and direct," says Kenneth S. Tollett, distinguished professor of higher education at Howard. "If you are not secure you shouldn't talk to him. He is not someone you would want to cross; if you do you should wear a bulletproof vest." Wiley A. Branton, a former dean of the Howard Law School, says that in faculty discussions, "Reid could be a calming influence or he could be disastrous. So I always made it a point to talk to him beforehand."

The Reid Lore

Herb Reid says this story isn't true but a lot of people who should know disagree.

One day at Howard, a student was answering a question when Reid got a phone call and had to leave the room. The student was on a roll but Reid thought his arguments sounded unconvincing. At the door he turned and said, "Keep talking and get all the {expletive} out of your system while I'm gone."

Reid wants to be known as a fighter in the philosophical sense. But he winks at his reputation. "I don't like a fight in the sense that I like to go around starting fights. I guess my Daddy said something that had a lot of effect on me: 'Nobody loves a bulldog but everybody respects one.' "

Reid has the need to be recognized but doesn't like the spotlight. A friend arranged a surprise party for him last year because she knew he wouldn't show up at a party for himself. "When he walked in the door, he looked overcome," says Loretta Avant, a political consultant, who gave the party. "He needed to go off for a few minutes and collect himself so he could return and be Herb Reid the tiger."

Where there are teeth, says his friends, there is also tenderness. A few years ago Barry asked Audrey Rowe, the city's commissioner of social services, to help find a job for a teen-ager who had stopped the mayor on the street. "The young man had a juvenile record and in the course of the time we knew him he got into trouble. The mayor was out of the country and everyone knew this was someone the mayor wanted us to help. We went to court and Herb took temporary custody of the child that weekend," remembers Rowe. "Herb was very stern with him. Herb was not one of the people I would have expected to come forward and say 'I'll take him.' But he has kept in touch with the kid."

The Longtime Friendship

To many outsiders, the mayor and his counsel appear to have a father-son relationship, with Barry being the brash kid, perpetually in trouble.

They met in January 1964 when Herb Reid represented a group of people who were sitting in at a rent strike on Girard Street NW. Many of the supporters were members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and through that association Reid was introduced to Barry, who was the first chairman of SNCC. "I got to know Marion as very able, smart and dedicated," says Reid.

A few years later in 1969, when Barry was director of Pride Inc., he was arrested on U Street NW during an altercation with the police over parking in the area. Their present association, Reid says, really stems from that. In addition to that incident, Barry remembers confronting Reid, who was acting dean of Howard Law School for two years, during a student strike. "I tried to intercede with the strike and Herb was a hard-liner, he was going to close the school down," says Barry. Reid won out and became a mentor who, says Barry, "gave me a broader perspective."

In the last 20 years, when things got tough for Barry, Reid has always been there. When, in June 1981, a rumor swept the city that Barry had been shot, the mayor held a late-night press conference on his lawn saying he was fine and had been at Reid's house, where Barry often played poker with other members of the inner circle. "At the time he was there," says Reid, laughing. "We were doing some kind of literary research."

Helping black leaders in trouble is a tradition with Reid. "Any black leader who was in any situation ... Herb was on call ... " says Jeanus B. Parks Jr., associate dean of Howard Law. In the movement days, he says, "they were trucking out at all hours of the night, getting Barry out of scrapes. The only difference now is that he {Reid} has a title."

While Reid's present role "is more for the mayor's benefit," says Parks, "It is the same thing Herb would do for everyone. Herb has always been the fireman for the movement."

"I think he is like I am," says Dovey Roundtree, an attorney Barry has called one of his Washington "mothers." "He sort of brought Marion along as a son. Perhaps he has a flaw -- the loyalty. He, like myself, is proud that this little snit can rise from his dashiki and wear a three-piece suit. Marion has done good things ... It is such a powder keg and Herb is a statesman at this point."

The father-son interpretation does not fly with the counsel. "I think the age and experience maybe helps from time to time to get perspective," says Reid. But he prefers to describe himself simply as "a friend who is older."

Another theory is that Reid serves as a link between Barry and the old black Washington middle class, and is the guardian of the latter's values and interests at the District Building. Reid is part of the old establishment through his association with Howard, and many members of the old line who don't like the mayor tone down their criticism in public because of Reid.

Reid says that's partly true. "I don't think our friendship is based on that," he says. But "it is a fact, I am a bridge, I do know people and command some respect ... Even though I have been more of an activist, I still relate and maintain respect and cordiality from the more conservative areas."

However the role is defined, Reid says he isn't the one to change Barry's behavior, particularly his association with women like Karen Johnson. The mayor really prides himself on being on top of things, Reid says, and as a result, talks to lots of different people. The general public, he says, needs to understand that, and make sure Barry's current troubles "are not smear campaigns." At the same time, he emphasizes he is "not arguing for any exceptions in criminal conduct ... In public life or not in public life, you owe social responsibility to other people."

When the nature of Barry's relationship with Karen Johnson became a public issue, Reid was the one who described it as "a personal relationship."

"Never did it ever strike me that would be a buzzword for a sexual intimate," Reid says today. "That is all I knew -- personal as opposed to professional. I was trying to say he knew her beyond some campaign. But whether they had been sexually intimate or not I did not know and obviously I would not have represented it."

The Houstonian Tradition

The black people of Wilson, N.C., who had educational and employment advantages, like Herb Reid's parents, were teachers and social activists. His father, a school principal, traveled around to raise money for a hospital for blacks. His parents opened their home to the leaders of the day: Booker T. Washington, William E. B. du Bois, Walter White and Mary McLeod Bethune, as they went from church to school speaking on current events.

Yet his mother told the youngest of her seven children that law didn't hold much future for Reid. "Not too many blacks were interested in studying law because there was some feeling that the courts were white-owned and -operated and that you needed a white {lawyer}," says Reid.

But what he had heard in his high school auditorium from the famed attorney Charles H. Houston convinced him it would be his life. Law, said Houston, was a "tool for social engineering."

"I wanted to function in the movement," says Reid. After undergraduate studies at Howard, where Houston's laboratory for social change was forming, he went on to Harvard Law School, because that was where Houston and William H. Hastie had studied. When he finished Harvard, he was the only black in the class and became the first black clerk at the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

At Howard the agenda of the late 1940s and early 1950s was to open doors. To prepare for the Supreme Court arguments in the school desegregation cases, James M. Nabrit Jr., Thurgood Marshall, George E. C. Hayes, George Johnson, Houston and Reid met in the dingy basement room of the Howard library.

"Herb would linger in the background but when he would speak out, people would listen," says Dovey Roundtree, a student at the time. "They debated and played different roles. They said so much your head would ache." And, although the atmosphere was heady, Reid didn't want the students to forget why they were at Howard. "I worked with them all night, pulling down books, typing for them," says the NAACP's Simmons. "Herb walked me back to the dorm. He knew I hadn't briefed any cases. So the first thing the next morning, he called on me. I wasn't prepared. And he said, 'What are you coming to school for?' "

Douglas Wilder, a student in the late 1950s, remembers that treatment forcing him to be serious. "I was waiting tables at the Bolling Air Force Club and I would come downtown to the watering holes after work. One night I saw him, and I had a young lady with me, and I proceeded to stay there as if I had all night. The next day he called on me and I didn't have it. After class he said, 'I think I'm going to fail you because you are lazy and I don't think you have it,' " recalls Wilder. "It made me study."

Over the years Reid brought his quest for justice into the classroom. His students worked on cases, rewarded not only by the firsthand experience but, remembers David Clarke, with dinners at Cecilia's or the Southern Dining Room. Another extra duty might be baby-sitting for the Reid children. Vernon Jordan was enlisted for that chore. Reid, who has been divorced for years, has two children, Carlene, a producer at Channel 50, and Herb Reid Jr., a lawyer who has been hospitalized with mental illness for several years.

In the classroom a few students complained they didn't get his full attention when a major case was in the works. Yet students who weren't part of his classes would sit in just to listen. "He was scary because he was so bright; he was just not speaking the same language we were," says corporation counsel Cooke. "But ... he cared passionately and that was contagious."

His method of teaching, describes Clarke, was "holistic ... He could teach the course with or without a book. He started with a vision of the Constitution and you went along until you had a clearer and clearer vision of the whole."

These days, that holistic vision appears to be tested almost daily, but Reid defends it, a guardian beleaguered but constant in his faith.

But he is also the attorney and friend. Asked if he thinks the mayor has been involved in any wrongdoing, Reid says, "I do not think Marion has done anything wrong. I have not seen any evidence of his wrongdoing. If the mayor of the District has engaged in any wrongful conduct, there is a process for that investigation." He's lastly the guardian of the process.