In October, when the Woolworth Corp. announced a round of store closings nationwide, bells went off in Bill Yeingst's head.

Yeingst works in the department of social and cultural history in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and it's his job to remember that four stools in a Woolworth lunch counter in North Carolina had a role in changing the world 34 years ago.

On Feb. 1, 1960, four black students from North Carolina A&T State University sat down at the whites-only Woolworth counter and tried to order Cokes and doughnuts. They stayed on their stools after being refused service, and their sit-in inspired blacks nationwide to organize protests against segregated services. It was a watershed moment in the civil rights movement, and Yeingst thought the Smithsonian should have a hand in its rememberance.

"As soon as I heard the Woolworth company was closing stores, I called the store manager in Greensboro," says Yeingst. "A Mr. Kennedy. He was very kind, and put me in touch with the corporate office in New York. We negotiated with them, and arranged for the Smithsonian to obtain four of the stools, an eight-foot section of the counter, a portion of the soda fountain, three mirrors and some of the cornice."

The store closed in late January, and two weeks ago Yeingst went to the five-and-dime to oversee the packing of the items, now in storage at the Smithsonian. "We hope to get the objects on exhibition rather quickly," he says. "They're certainly some of the most important acquisitions by the museum in the realm of civil rights. The actions of these four students fundamentally changed race relations in the United States and, to some degree, the world."

Yeingst points out the broader value of the objects as learning tools: "When they go on exhibition they will allow us to teach the history of not only civil rights, but of the South, worker-manager relations, daily life of the communities that gathered at lunch counters, the role of Woolworths in business history. These objects have multiple interpretive purposes."

The Smithsonian, in working to acquire the historic objects, was careful to work with the community preservation groups that sprang up before the store closed, particularly Sit-In Movement Inc., a group that is raising funds to turn the entire Elm Street store into a civil rights museum. The rest of the lunch counter, which seated 89 people, was left intact.

Asociating the Associates

On Jan. 3, Mara Mayor took over the directorship of the Smithsonian Associates, a year after Janet Solinger stepped down after 20 years.

Mayor, previously head of the Annenberg/Corporation for Public Broadcasting Project, joins an organization in flux. She must oversee the final stages of the merger of the National Associate Program with the Resident Associate Program. "Basically what you have is a new organization that combines the other two, which used to be identified, at least in part, on the basis of geography," explains Mayor. "The residents program was seen as only serving people in our area while the national program was seen exclusively as reaching beyond the Mall. We're intent on having it be a program for the nation."

The Associate Program is the membership and continuing education division of the Smithsonian. There are 2.1 million members nationwide, primarily subscribers to the Smithsonian magazine. But Mayor wants to see more of them join up as contributing members by offering them the kinds of programs that Washington residents have had access to: lectures, concerts, study tours, seminars, often with leading experts in a given field.

How do you take these things to the people? "I think one of the natural next steps is to begin to take advantage of electronic communications," says Mayor. "When I see what's offered every day on the Mall, the amazing panoply of contemporary culture and scholarship, I feel we have to give all our members some of that richness, and clearly the possibilities offered by electronic communications are a piece of the puzzle. We're also looking into partnerships with groups around the country, from museums to universities and even embassies here that have offices around the country."

Mayor, a longtime Associate member herself, reminds us that the program, while educational, "is about the fun of learning. Fun is not a bad word. I want people to be able to come away from something saying 'I did something I never would have had a chance to do otherwise,' and this program lets people say that. It's a tremendous program with an extraordinary staff, and I'm the newcomer. I'm having a ball. It's hard for me to not walk around grinning all the time."

Beat Bits

Fairfax County arts groups will receive more than $20,000 from the "A Call to Arts" telethon held earlier this month, doubling their take from last year's inaugural TV fund-raiser. The sponsors -- the Arts Council of Fairfax, Media General Cable of Fairfax and FCAC Channel 10 -- all say they'll be back for a repeat performance next year ...

Jane Alexander, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, will hold a public forum on cultural policy issues with Hilmar Hoffman, president of the Goethe Institute, tonight from 8 to 10 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. For more information call 202-783-5000.