Listen to Christopher F. Edley Sr. talk about successful African Americans who don't contribute to the United Negro College Fund, and you get an idea why the fund's retiring president has a reputation for having a temper.

"If I had my way, I'd ask them for money and publish in the paper the next day whether or not they gave," Edley says. "But nobody will let me do that. "I don't want to do it alone, and I haven't been able to get the other key black organizations to join with me."

Edley scoffs at "phonies" who want respect as black community leaders but don't support organizations such as his, the NAACP or the National Urban League. "Turncoat" and "treasonous to his race" are among his labels for those folks.

"We are throwing ropes back to those coming behind us, so that they can get as high as we've done, and even higher. It's in this spirit that I see us raising money for these kids," he says.

Edley sees his own image in the poor black students who may get their best chance at a black college. Today, he lives in the New York suburb of New Rochelle, owns a vacation home on St. Croix and works in a Manhattan office building. His salary runs into the low six figures. But Edley remembers when life was not so comfortable, and those hard times in Lynchburg, Va., are what fire his temper.

"Sometimes I have to revert to the Lynchburg teenager growing up on the streets," he says. "Some people see a polished black and assume you have never used profanity, that you've never been in a fight and that you're a pushover. And in moments of weakness, you have to set some of them straight."

Edley recalls when the Congress for Racial Equality, "this militant group from Harlem," staged a sit-in in 1978 at the building on East 62nd Street that the UNCF shares with the National Urban League. The protest was directed at the Urban League, but somehow spilled over into UNCF offices. Co-workers telephoned Edley, who was away from the office, for advice on what to do.

"I said, 'Throw them out!' And they said, 'You mean get the police?' And I said, 'No, get your colleagues. Kick 'em the hell out of there,' " he says. "These people have the United Negro College Fund mixed up with some lily-white organization that has guilt feelings and is prepared to take a lot of foolishness. Everybody at the College Fund has paid their dues."

Bigger and Better

During 18 years at the College Fund, which supports 41 private schools, Edley has hammered away at raising black contributions, and with results: The share of contributions from blacks has jumped from 16 percent to about 40 percent. And contributions in general rose from $9.5 million in 1972 to $48.6 million last year, better than a five-fold increase.

When he retires for health reasons just before turning 63 on New Year's Day, Edley will depart a charity that is bigger, better known and more sophisticated than it was when he arrived in 1973. "He's put it in places where it had never been, in terms of the minds of the American public," says Washington lawyer Vernon Jordan. "I say that as a fellow who had the job before he did."

While Edley was offered the job informally over dinner at Jordan's house, an ongoing quest for a successor has involved an executive search firm and more than 200 candidates.

"It is a highly visible and prestigious, nationally prominent position. Chris has raised it to that level, quite clearly," says Elias Blake, a former president of Clark College in Atlanta. "They want somebody who has it in his gut about these schools, like Chris does."

Passion and Pride

Edley admits to being "passionate, emotional," and he confesses to a sentimental side as well. "I probably cry looking at TV and in the movies more than anybody I know. In fact, in my speeches, I frequently bring myself to tears, okay?" he says.

His mother, who named her second son Christopher Fairfield after the black doctor who delivered him in Charleston, W.Va., was a domestic worker. His father, a cabinetmaker, abandoned the family when Chris was 3. "I grew up with no recollection of my father," he says.

Helen Edley returned with three children to her parents' home in Lynchburg, where "the four of us lived in one bedroom," he recalls. She worked cleaning private homes and later a dean's campus residence at Randolph-Macon Woman's College. "My recollection is of my mother leaving before daybreak and coming back after dark -- frequently with goodies," he says.

Edley also remembers carting surplus foods from the welfare office in his wagon. One day he brought home oatmeal infested with ants. "We were so poor that we couldn't throw away oatmeal," he says, "so we had to pick them out."

Southern black families like his didn't send many children to college during the 1940s, but somehow all three Edleys attended black colleges. Chris, the best student in his high school class, might have gone to Yale were it not for the limits of a Jim Crow education. Not even the best efforts of a high school counselor could overcome that barrier.

"Pauline Weldon tried to get me into Yale. It didn't work. We had only an 11-year system, and Yale required 12 years," Edley says. So he entered Howard University in 1945.

Like many black college students, Edley relied on part-time jobs and scholarships. He worked during the wartime summer of 1945 testing bullets in a munitions plant and shelved library books at Howard in the fall.

The first of two Army tours interrupted his college education, but a shrewd and hard-studying Sgt. Edley used his veteran's benefits to complete studies at Howard in 1949. The GI Bill also helped him begin studies at Harvard Law School, which also awarded him a scholarship.

Edley practiced law in Philadelphia for a decade, and appeared to be on a path to a federal judgeship until, in 1964, President Johnson picked A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. instead. "He beat me out," Edley says dryly.

Edley spent another decade at the Ford Foundation in New York, where he first made his mark in national affairs as director of the philanthropy's government and law programs. Frequent dealings with the Rand Corp. at Ford prompted Edley, for instance, to fund a black think tank to do similar research. It is now called the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Other grants he made created the Police Foundation, boosted enrollment at Howard Law School and provided "legislative internships" in Sacramento to Julian Dixon, now a California congressman, and Maxine Waters, who will represent a Los Angeles district in the new Congress.

Initially, Edley turned down the College Fund job. "I thought I had the best job in the world at the Ford Foundation," he said.

But when offered the opportunity to try it for a couple of years, with the right to return to his Ford job, he gave it a whirl. He arrived on a two-year leave of absence, extended it to five years and then stayed permanently because "I felt I was achieving more for more people."

Making a Difference

The more than half a billion dollars that Edley has raised in almost 18 years at the fund have helped thousands of black students get into college. He prepares to leave with black colleges, in his view, "stronger than they have been in two decades." Enrollments on black campuses are growing faster than at predominantly white colleges. Eight of the 10 colleges most popular with black high school seniors last year are historically black institutions.

Edley puts the main reason for this new-found popularity in unromantic terms: "rising costs at white schools." Tuition at UNCF schools, for instance, runs about half of what other private colleges charge.

Although he describes himself as an integrationist who grew up believing in the American melting pot, Edley has dedicated himself to preserving black colleges. It is not a contradiction in his mind. "The strongest leaders and fighters we've had for integration are graduates of the black colleges," he says.

His two children chose different types of colleges: daughter Judith attended Spelman, while Christopher Jr. rejected his dad's advice, turned down Harvard ("I thought he was out of his ever-loving mind," Edley says) and instead went to Swarthmore College. He later went to Harvard Law School and is a professor there.

"No one on my side has ever contended that all black students or most black students should go to predominantly black schools," the elder Edley says.

He grows outspoken once again when asked about image problems caused by the run-down look of some black college campuses.

"We are about educating students, and if they are not willing to make any sacrifice, then maybe they're going to the wrong institution," Edley says. "That was certainly the spirit of Booker T. Washington. Remember, those students made the bricks and put up the buildings {at Tuskegee}. Now, I know it's unrealistic to talk about that in 1990, but I think we have to admit that there are still students that have to work their way through school."

Whoever succeeds Edley as UNCF president and chief executive officer will have to spend a lot of time playing a role Booker T. perfected -- persuading wealthy whites to support black colleges. In Edley's opinion, their generosity is needed to raise $200 million to match a $50 million grant that former publishing magnate Walter T. Annenberg made to the College Fund in March.

Annenberg's is the largest gift ever made to an African American institution, and the $200 million campaign is the fund's most ambitious undertaking. Nine months after his gift, the fund has received $20 million in pledges of matching funds, including $2 million from the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation.

First on Edley's personal agenda in retirement is minding his health. Though fit and vigorous in appearance, he underwent a heart bypass operation seven years ago, suffers from mild diabetes and has a partial hearing loss.

He may also resume a pastime abandoned several years ago because of his demanding job -- reading spy and detective novels. He developed the habit after devouring every Perry Mason novel. "He loves reading junk novels," his son says.

Edley also plans to complete his own epic novel, begun in the 1950s. The mulatto protagonist, born out of wedlock, is denied his inheritance from a white father because of greed and racism. Later, the spurned son becomes a lawyer. Cagily, Edley will say no more about the plot.