It's a 40-mile drive from the sleepy Carroll County hamlet of Sykesville to the Woodward & Lothrop building in downtown Washington, and for Betty Brown Casey, who bought the Woodies building for $18 million last month as a gift for the Washington Opera, it's also a 60-year journey in time.

The intensely private 68-year-old widow was a rural child of want -- a schoolgirl of the Depression in a threadbare community of farm fields and outhouses unsettlingly adjacent to the largest state mental hospital in Maryland.

"If you said you were from Sykesville in those days," recalls one of her high school classmates, "everybody thought you were nuts."

If the landscape between Sykesville and Washington has changed profoundly since then, so, too, has Betty Casey's life.

And to a remarkable degree the agent in each case was the same: a brilliant, autocratic and obsessively tightfisted speculator and developer named Eugene Bernard Casey.

For 82 years -- he died in 1986, leaving an estate of more than $200 million -- Eugene Casey's life was a microcosm of the tumultuous, often painful transformation of rural Maryland from green but empty fields to booming but traffic-clogged suburbs. It was a roller coaster of contradictions -- part visionary investment, part political chicanery -- with stupendous profits compounded by economic boom, as well as costs and scandals that took him from White House circles to federal prison and back again. As his wife of 31 years -- and heir to his fortune -- Betty Brown Casey traveled with him much of the way.

Four years after his death, a bomb exploded in her $55,000 white Mercedes 560 as she was driven to her Potomac home from a shopping trip to Rizik's. The murder attempt, which left her severely shaken but not seriously hurt, has never been solved.

A now-retired agent of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms compared the bomb to those used "in professional hits in places like Las Vegas." In more than 20 years with the ATF, says William H. Seals, "I never saw a bomb like that in the Washington area. . . . It was clearly about all that money. Nobody would try to blow up that little lady because of something she said over tea and crumpets."

The explosion turned a rare spotlight on the life and fortune of Betty Brown Casey. Her gilt-edged vision of an operatic rebirth for downtown Washington has turned another. Neither has been welcomed by the mystery-shrouded woman who friends say has always been shy, and who now struggles painfully with the increasingly public aspects of her considerable philanthropy.

"She just hates seeing her name in the paper," says Brendan Sullivan, her attorney, in relaying her unwillingness to be interviewed for this story. "She doesn't understand why giving away $18 million has to turn her into a public figure."

Yet Betty Brown Casey is more than just a wealthy woman. Her story, and that of her late husband, provide a rare window into a Maryland -- and a Washington -- almost forgotten now at century's end, and into her motives for wanting an opera house at 11th and F.

And into the way the past, as William Faulkner once wrote, "is never dead -- it's not even past."

In a sense, her story begins with her husband, Eugene Casey -- a Washington-born Horatio Alger character raised on his Irish immigrant grandfather's stories of lugging barrels up the steps of the U.S. Capitol to build the dome. A penny-hoarding plumber's son who sold papers, jerked sodas and scrambled after odd jobs to bankroll his early business ventures, Eugene went to Central High School and during the mid-1920s studied engineering briefly at Penn State. But he returned after a year or so to work in and eventually inherit his father's business, Casey Plumbing and Heating.

From there the youthful Casey saved his money and branched out in the 1930s to build homes throughout Northeast Washington, pouring his substantial profits into the purchase of farmland in then almost wholly rural Montgomery County. By 1938 he was a wealthy man, three of whose farms -- New Deal Farms Nos. 1, 2 and 3 -- encompassed much of what is now greater Rockville and Gaithersburg. He was also well connected enough politically so that three years later he was named executive assistant to President Franklin Roosevelt. He had already been mentioned as a candidate for the U.S. Senate from Maryland. His future seemed limitless.

But during the go-go years of World War II, some of his life began to unravel. First there was a 1943 divorce from Helon Casey, the mother of his four children -- more than a minor scandal then in Catholic-heavy Maryland. Then there was a 1945 marriage to his second wife, Charlotte, a United Airlines stewardess with whom he would have two children and a nine-year union that was anything but conventional.

According to Charlotte Casey, who now lives in Arizona, she moved briefly to a rental house in Rockville after the wedding, but never moved in with Casey on his Gaithersburg farm. After 18 months, she says, she returned to her home in Chicago and never came back.

"Mr. Casey would come through Chicago about once a month on his way to see to his farmland in Wisconsin and the Dakotas," she says. "While he was flying around the country as Roosevelt's agriculture representative he came across a lot of farmland under distress sale, and he bought it for himself. And we would see each other then."

Then in 1947 Eugene Casey was convicted of having evaded more than $70,000 in federal income taxes during the war. The man who had been FDR's youngest White House adviser -- with a net worth of at least $2.3 million -- was sentenced to six months in prison. Country Girl

The woman who would become his third wife, meanwhile, was growing up in considerably more humble surroundings. In southern Carroll County, where she was raised, the Great Depression arrived early and stayed late. Less than 20 miles from downtown Baltimore, hers was a dirt road culture profoundly isolated and remote from the everyday conveniences and assumptions of urban life in the 1930s and '40s.

"When I tell people that nobody around here had indoor plumbing, they look at me like I'm crazy," says Clementine Mansfield, who was two classes behind Betty Brown at Sykesville High School. "But nobody around here had anything. Many homes lacked electricity. Very few had phones. Not many store-bought clothes. We didn't think of ourselves as poor, because everyone was in the same boat, and people looked out for each other . . . and with the farms nearby there was usually enough to eat. But for the grown-ups, life was hard."

According to Pauline Wright, who grew up nearby, the Brown family lived about six miles northwest of Sykesville in a white frame house still standing just east of Route 97. Betty's father, Wright says, was a long-distance truck driver who was often absent and later became a cabdriver in Baltimore. Her mother, Wright says, commuted daily by Greyhound bus to Baltimore where she worked as a house mother for nurses at Women's Hospital. Later she worked at the vast 3,500-patient Springfield State Mental Hospital outside Sykesville, then the largest employer in Carroll County.

Betty, the oldest of three daughters, was one of 39 graduates in 1943 at Sykesville High, in a class whittled down by war. She is widely remembered as friendly but reserved, a "very studious" young woman, serious about her classes at an age when many girls were more caught up in war drives, boys and other activities.

"She got very good grades," remembers classmate Evelyn Brightwell. "There were only six seniors specially mentioned in the yearbook for outstanding scholarship and athletic ability. Betty was one."

Few class members -- particularly girls -- thought of college as an option in those days. Sykesville High, Wright remembers, went only to the 11th grade "and there was just no money." Betty Brown, however, landed a scholarship to Washington College in Chestertown, as did another classmate, Bill Tomlinson.

Outstanding grades aside, Wright says, she "always understood" that "political connections" had helped Betty win the scholarship, which required a state senatorial sponsor. Those "connections" apparently were that her cousin Pauline Snapp was the wife of the superintendent on the Gaithersburg farm of presidential adviser Eugene Casey. Betty went to live with the Snapps after high school, Wright says, and possibly Casey helped.

However true Wright's understanding, colleges everywhere in 1943 were scrambling to find and help students like Betty Brown. With most college-age men in the service and round-the-clock war work luring women from school into high-paying jobs, the Washington College student body was less than half its normal size when Betty entered. When she graduated in 1947, her 41-member senior class was scarcely larger than she'd known at Sykesville High.

She was still the same reserved non-joiner she had been in high school -- one of only two female classmates who, after four years in Chestertown, still shunned the fees and frivolity of sorority life. Her senior picture in the Washington College "Pegasus" shows a serious-looking young woman in a dark sweater and string of pearls. Major: biology. Minor: psychology. Future plans: the field of economics.

How much time Betty spent at the Casey farm during her college years remains unclear. Pauline Snapp declines to talk about her cousin, from whom she and her husband sought money they said Eugene Casey had promised to leave them.

"She lived with us off and on over the years . . . on visits," Snapp says. "It was cousin love, pure and simple." Most of the visits, she says, were during summer vacations when Betty was working as a waitress to have money for college. Casey was rarely there. He had resigned his White House job in 1944 to serve as a naval officer in the South Pacific. Some pictures have surfaced, however, showing her at the farm in July 1945, while he's at home, one with Snapp's two daughters, another posing self-consciously in Casey's naval officer's cap.

But she was still a serious and quite focused young woman. For the next eight years she worked at the Rosewood Training School for the mentally retarded near Baltimore, teaching and helping place children in foster homes. And while doing so she would -- at a time when graduate degrees among women were extremely rare -- study for and attain her master's degree in psychiatric social work from Catholic University in Washington. The Miser

It is unusually difficult to find people willing to talk even off the record about Betty Casey. Many who know her are protective of her privacy, some because of affection or just consideration; others candidly wary of displeasing any 68-year-old with no natural heirs and millions of dollars. A few claim she is vindictive, but they define that vindictiveness as the possibility of her withholding an expected or potential gift.

The most extensive portrait of her life with Eugene Casey lies in the transcript of a 26-day trial in Montgomery Circuit Court in 1994, in which 10 of Casey's 11 grandchildren, ages 17 to 32, sued her to overturn the will that left her in control of their grandfather's fortune.

Judge Paul A. McGuckian ultimately found their case without merit. Far from manipulating a senile octogenarian into changing his will as the grandchildren claimed, McGuckian ruled, Betty Casey had been governed throughout her marriage and even bullied at times by a strong and dominant husband who remained fully in control of his affairs even as age enfeebled his body.

And instead of the fortune-hunting evil stepmother they sought to portray -- purportedly secreting funds in Switzerland and Liechtenstein -- Betty Casey emerges from the trial testimony as the same shy, reserved devotee of the quiet life that those who knew her in Sykesville remember. And there is more than a little evidence of social conscience: her work at Rosewood, her graduate degree in psychiatric social work, her mother's work at Springfield State Mental Hospital and even the career of her sister Rosemary, who became a registered nurse.

Just when her relationship with Casey became more than friendship remains unclear. Second wife Charlotte Casey says her husband had come to Chicago less and less over the years and one day in 1954 wrote asking for a divorce because he wanted to marry someone else. "I never met her, and I was never interested enough to learn the details," Charlotte Casey says.

Several of the Casey children, who decline to talk for attribution, say their father had been seeing at least one other woman regularly when he suddenly married Betty in 1955 with little notice to them.

But in any case, in making a life with Eugene Casey, Betty Brown took on a difficult task. At the age of 50, Eugene Casey was not only 24 years her senior, but was also, as the trial transcript makes clear, selfish, autocratic, domineering, moody, obsessively secretive and so tight with his millions he would unplug a Coke machine when he left his office at night to save on electricity.

He used to boast to his friends in front of her that he made 95 percent of the decisions in their marriage and told her how to make the other 5 percent. He gave her so little money for clothes that a wealthy cousin of his took pity and bought her dresses.

But with all his difficulties -- some of which she attributed to his having been an only child -- she testified that he was "extremely intelligent," had an "unbelievable memory" and possessed "an inner core of sweetness" that drew her love.

Casey had been pardoned for his income tax offenses by President Harry Truman -- he had been instrumental in swinging the key Maryland delegation behind Truman's nomination for vice president in 1944 -- but he remained a social and political outsider in Montgomery County. After his new marriage, Betty testified, he told her he wanted to get away from the "unhappy atmosphere" that remained from his IRS problems in Maryland.

The two moved to Virginia, to a 729-acre farm on the Shenandoah River near Berryville. There for the next 10 years Eugene Casey focused on breeding racehorses, commuting once or twice a week to his office in Gaithersburg to oversee his vast holdings in Montgomery. Interstate 270 found its way through much of his land there, swelling his fortune even more, and the government built the National Bureau of Standards on part of his New Deal farms. At one point in their marriage he had the reputation among developers -- however accurate -- of owning more land than anyone east of the Mississippi.

Yet he remained almost pathologically parsimonious. When they traveled from Virginia to Gaithersburg for the night, Betty Casey testified, they would sleep on a bed in his office to save money. When corporations invited them as potential investors for a visit, she said, Casey would charge them for first-class plane tickets, fly coach and pocket the difference.

Betty recalled her life in Virginia as perhaps the happiest time of her marriage. They lived well away from the shadow of her husband's prison term and previous marriages, in a low-key style, comfortable but close in some ways to the country life she had known as a girl in Carroll County. They traveled regularly to places like Saratoga, N.Y., and New Orleans, and photographs in the trial record show summer picnics with his children and grandchildren beneath leafy oaks on their farm. Betty Casey looks happy, relaxed and beautiful.

But it wasn't enough for her husband, who still craved the approval of powerful men and still brooded about the prison stain on his reputation. In the late 1960s he heeded the advice of Gen. George Olmsted, one of his business associates, to return to Maryland and a more active business life and "earn respect by amassing a fortune." It was not a change Betty Casey welcomed. They already had more money than they could spend, and, as she testified almost pleadingly, "I am not a joiner. I don't like to get up in front of groups. . . . I like the quiet life." Give-and-Take

The last 16 years of Eugene Casey's life, the transcript and news clippings show, were as brilliant and erratic as almost anything that came before. In addition to his land holdings, which by his death would leave him with three shopping centers, 1,500 apartments, hundreds of houses and thousands of acres of open land, he made $15 million at one stroke by selling Financial General Bankshares to a consortium of Arab businessmen. In the last two years of his life alone, he invested $6.8 million in the stock market for a return of 40 percent.

One banker testified at the trial over his estate that he was still such a demanding client that she had to wake up at 5 a.m. to read the Wall Street Journal and prepare for his early morning phone quiz. Other employees testified that Casey personally went over 99 percent of the invoices of his 22 separate corporations.

But he also embroiled himself as the self-described front man in a scheme to enrich Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel's political cronies with the Marlboro Racetrack. Though Casey was never charged with anything illegal, he said in court that he had lied repeatedly to the press and public about his involvement with Mandel, and was inevitably tarred with the scandal when Mandel went to prison.

He also became more cantankerous. There were periodic fights with his children and grandchildren, from whom he went to great lengths to hide his business affairs, and with his wife, who pleaded with him to be more generous. He disinherited at least two of his children for a time, but relented under her persuasion. Betty was far more generous with his descendants than he was, the transcript shows, and over the years made gifts to them totaling more than $7 million.

According to the trial transcript, Eugene Casey believed it a disservice to pass on great wealth to his succeeding generations. Ultimately he decided to leave each of his six children $1 million tax-free and split the rest between Betty and a charitable foundation that she controlled. That decision was made on the advice of attorney Clark Clifford and, Betty testified, was motivated in no small part by her husband's desire to shelter his money from the detested IRS, which had sent him to prison.

Casey had a few charities he liked to give to, including the Patrick Henry Foundation in Virginia, the Salvation Army, the Little Sisters of the Poor and various hospitals and medical research projects. But it was Betty Casey, the trial transcript shows, who steered him toward more extensive philanthropy, in part as a way to redeem his name. Once he started giving seriously near the end of his life, she said, he found he liked it. He gave $5.8 million to Washington College and, without informing her, got her named to the board of trustees.

"He thought if he gave money to Georgetown {where he'd briefly studied law after World War II} or some other large institution his name would be lost. . . . And he didn't want to be lost," Betty Casey told the court. "At a small campus like Washington College, he thought, when you did something you stood out. . . . He expected that."

The letters identifying the Eugene B. Casey Swim Center at Washington College are larger than any others on the campus. Music of the Soul

While her Sykesville classmates don't remember Betty Brown Casey as particularly musical, Casey family members say she was always known for her love of opera, playing and treasuring opera records though her husband was no opera fan. As trial testimony indicated, his idea of the performing arts was a night in front of the television watching "Gunsmoke," "Dallas" or "Wall Street Week." But he tolerated her passion, and the Eugene B. Casey Foundation once underwrote a Washington Opera production of "Die Fledermaus," reportedly one of the few operas he enjoyed.

In 1974, shortly after the Caseys moved back to Montgomery County from Virginia, Betty Casey joined the Washington Opera board -- a post generally reserved for generous donors -- and has been a member and considerable patron ever since. Five years ago she became board chairman. Both moves were rare exceptions to her aversion to joining things, but Betty Casey has apparently resigned herself to the realization that with great wealth comes management responsibility.

Six years before he died, impatient with both the increasing infirmities of age and what he regarded as a lack of business acumen among his descendants, Casey began pressuring Betty to involve herself more in his affairs. It was a move she initially resisted.

"I don't like business," she testified at the trial. ". . . My husband told me you had to be hard . . . and let people, even if they were friends, know that you were tough and you were strong. And he was right. . . . I didn't understand . . . for some time . . . but I can see now that he was right."

Since Casey's death she has headed her husband's business empire as well as her own affairs, which court records suggest together may now approach $300 million in value. A 1996 computer printout of her Montgomery County properties alone runs 20 pages.

Her vision and purchase of the Woodies building as an opera house -- and her determination to persevere despite potential zoning problems in the city -- thus were as much an outgrowth of her business outlook as of her love for opera, says Patricia Mossel, executive director of the Washington Opera. Betty Casey emphasized at the time that the unusually large cash donation was her money, not that of her husband's foundation. However, she said, "it would have pleased my late husband, Eugene B. Casey, to make possible such a happy collaboration of the arts."

"Betty wanted to do something for Washington," Mossel says. "She realized that if retail stores alone would work in that building, Woodies would still be in business. An opera house there would be something to galvanize the whole downtown area, much as the Folger Shakespeare Theatre has already done, attracting restaurants and people and a whole new sense of what the downtown of the nation's capital can be. And she wants to start a young artists program for the opera, to give the young people of the District a sense of the unlimited opportunities there are out there."

It's a concept that appears light-years from the Sykesville of long ago. But someone who knew her in Sykesville thinks it may not be that distant after all.

"What you have to remember," he says, "is that those kids shooting each other over dope money in the District and feeling deprived have all grown up with far, far more than Betty ever had as a kid. What they're lacking isn't money, it's something else -- something in their dreams, in their hopes, in their vision of a wider world.

"I wouldn't be surprised if she doesn't see an opera house as the motivating symbol of that spiritual something else. That may sound far-fetched. But opera's meant a lot to the spirit of that poor country girl from Sykesville. And she's certainly found out firsthand by now that money alone ain't the answer." CAPTION: Betty and Eugene B. Casey in the early 1980s. Right, Betty Brown in July 1945, modeling Eugene Casey's naval officer's cap. CAPTION: An FDR press conference with Winston Churchill. Eugene Casey is seated next to the wire basket. CAPTION: Betty Brown was one of two female classmates at Washington College who did not join a sorority.