IN 1957, tired of being pummeled everytime he rejected a request for a new stamp, the postmaster general decided to resolve the problem in the classic Washington way: He created a committee.
The Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee, which Arthur E. Summerfield formed to review the hundreds of stamp requests he received each year, proved to be the buffer between the postmaster general and stamp advocates that Summerfield had sought.
But it also emerged as a major force within the postal bureaucracy, establishing formal criteria by which all stamp requests would be judged and bringing order to what many collectors regarded as an often petty, political process.
Earlier this summer, Belmont Faries, the genial 77-year-old who largely has been responsible for the committee's transformation, presided over his final meeting. A Washington journalist regarded as the dean of philatelic writers, Faries was for a long time the news editor of the Washington Star and its stamp columnist until the paper folded in 1981.
As chairman of the committee for the past 15 years and a member of the panel almost since its inception, Faries said he had decided "I've been there long enough." It was time for someone else to take charge of the committee, he said.
Besides, Faries said, he had also decided that after 52 years in the nation's capital, he would accede to his wife's wishes and return to her home state of Montana. Faries will remain on the committee.
But when the panel reassembles in September for its next scheduled meeting, Jack Rosenthal of Casper, Wyo., a broadcasting executive and distinguished collector, will be wielding the gavel. A member of the panel since 1985, Rosenthal "will continue the established tradition of excellence in subject selection, design and reproduction," the Postal Service said in announcing the change.
Faries said in an interview that those are among the qualities he hopes will be his legacy as committee chairman. The improvements in subjects, artwork and printing have combined to make a marked change in the way the nation's stamps look, Faries said.
He cited the four stamps bearing the images of carousel animals, voted the most popular 1988 stamps in the annual Linn's Stamp News poll. "I don't think any country in the world can put out a stamp that is better than that one," Faries said.
Through the years Faries and his committee have said no to thousands of proposals. But the former chairman shied away from any suggestion that he might have been the Postal Service's "Mr. No."
The rejections were the work of the committee and not his alone, Faries said. Most ideas, such as a recent proposal for a stamp to honor the late Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.), failed because they did not meet the committee's rules, he said. Pepper, the congressional champion of the elderly who died last year, didn't get a stamp because he had not been dead the required 10 years.
Because the stamp committee meets behind closed doors, it's difficult to judge what will be the immediate impact of Faries's departure as chairman. Faries said his principal task was to keep the committee moving through its daylong agenda during its bimonthly meetings.
"We had no place for Robert's Rules of Order," he said. "We ran on my rules and had to, to keep things moving."
Still, Faries said he never cut off anyone. Anthony M. Frank, who is the fifth or sixth postmaster general under whom the chairman has served -- Faries can't remember which -- said Faries's tenure was "marked by his unique ability to harmonize divergent viewpoints and reach a reasonable consensus on every issue."
Regardless of what the committee decided, Faries is fond of noting that its recommendations are just that. It's still the postmaster general who has the final say on any stamp.
"I always stress that the committee has no authority at all," Faries said with a chuckle. Indeed, the chairman recalled that a joke around the postal headquarters used to be that the late Postmaster General Thomas Bolger "couldn't go to a Georgetown cocktail party without promising two stamps."
Under Faries, the committee has developed plans for stamps well into the 1990s. "We have most of the next five years in hand," he said.
Included but unannounced are all the new stamps expected to be needed for next year's rate change as well as nearly a dozen "topical" designs, he said.
Since the Postal Service's new agreement with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing requires longer lead times for stamps, that will be a boon to incoming committee chairman Rosenthal.
Faries said he has no doubt that Rosenthal will prove a capable leader. "He is thoroughly effective," said Faries.
"I'm a stamp collector; he is a top-notch philatelist," Faries said. When the committee began debating how to reissue the famous 1892 Columbia Exposition stamps, the nation's first commemorative set, Rosenthal brought in his extensive collection of "Columbians."
"He has got stamps that the Smithsonian wishes it had," Faries said.
Bill McAllister is a member of The Washington Post national staff.