Tom Lucas remembers well last year's uphill battle in his bid for the presidency of one of the country's largest national vocational student organizations. Hometown business people were skeptical about sponsoring him. ("You're in the wrong place, buddy," he was told.) Even some of his advisers tried to dissuade Lucas from running.

After all, they reasoned, the Future Homemakers of America had never elected a male president.

Despite lukewarm support, Lucas ran anyway, at the organization's 1986 National Leadership meeting in Orlando.

And he won.

It was a year the 17-year old senior from Salt Rock, W. Va., will never forget.

Lucas is big on family. He's big on the community. Ask him to talk about cooking and sewing, however, and he's likely to turn the conversation around to the FHA's myriad other concerns, such as teen employment opportunities, substance abuse and peer counseling, all of which can be related to homemaking, according to Lucas.

And all of which suits the FHA, beleagured for years by a "Suzie Homemaker" image, just fine. "It's not just cooking and sewing anymore," said Scotty Smith, Kansas' first male state FHA president. "It's skills needed for life."

As participants in last week's 1987 National Leadership Meeting, held at the Washington Hilton, Smith and fellow FHA member Ben Allen offered information on child abuse at a forum of state delegations. These days, "they're not in the kitchen," said Jan Bowers, Smith's state adviser, of her students. And neither were the FHA members who offered information on topics as diverse as AIDS prevention, financial management, and fitness in a crowded exhibition hall last Thursday. "We don't worry as much about our cakes falling as this," said Smith, pointing to his display.

Which is not to say that the organization has abandoned the basics. Rather, it is incorporating homemaking principles into an updated agenda.

At the project exhibition, for example, a team from Minnesota offered tips on how individual FHA chapters might feature diet analysis, weight control and a "Cooks Appreciation Day" in their school projects. And a delegation from Connecticut spoke about the ups and downs of operating a small food business, an ice cream parlor with a psychedelic theme, within its school.

While sewing and cooking remain facets of the organization, today those skills are likely to be used to further members' careers in the industries of interior design, fashion and food service. "Home ec represents business and money," noted Lucas, an FHA member since seventh grade home economics. At the same time, "FHA is still stressing the family," said Joe McClaskey, a district president from Kansas.

Few seem to mind the shift in focus. Letitia Franklin, a chapter adviser from Culpepper, Va., and a 22-year veteran of FHA, actually prefers what she calls the organization's "new image."

The first male president of the FHA wasn't the first boy to become a national FHA officer. (Seventeen males preceded him.) And he has plenty of like-minded brothers within the group; almost 12 percent of FHA membership is male, according to Katrine Fitzgerald Ryan, the organization's public relations director.

But until Lucas passed the gavel, to Rae Lynne Bell of Oklahoma at the conclusion of last week's FHA gathering, he served as the 315,000-member organization's publicity dream come true -- "The boy who dares to tread where no man has gone before," proclaimed Esquire magazine. In his own words, Lucas garnered the organization "unprecedented publicity." Not because of any extraordinary efforts on his part, he will tell you, but because of his sex.

Within the FHA, the news was initially reported rather matter-of-factly. "The fact he was male didn't help him or hurt him in any way," insisted Ryan. "Men and women have been with us since our founding in 1945," added Jennifer Payton, Lucas' vice president. Lucas was equally nonchalant. "It didn't matter that I was first, I just wanted to be president," he recalled.

But the significance of his installation was soon recognized. For the first time in the organization's 42-year history, it had as its leader someone whose resume' included, among other activities, starting defensive tackle. "Tom, this is big, you're going to be swamped," Ryan said to the newly elected president.

Besieged. Flooded. Overwhelmed, as it turned out. As the FHA's first male president, Lucas was responsible for representing what is commonly -- and erroneously -- considered a girls' organization.

His appointment has done more than expand the public perception of what the FHA does. Lucas has also beefed up the image of boys in the FHA, according to both male and female FHA members. "Girls prefer more male membership," said McClaskey, shortly before heading for an FHA dance. "I think guys are vital in the FHA," noted another district president, Misti Hamilton, who said the organization benefits from "a male perspective." Lucas likes to say that "anyone who adds to the well-being of a home" is a homemaker.

Though his mother, Sue Brown, claimed her son can "cook just about anything," Lucas prefers to play down any expertise in the kitchen. "He's afraid that will be the only association," explained Brown. Oh, there was the omelet he whipped up for a segment on NBC's Today show. And a shot of Lucas stitching an FHA emblem onto a blazer graced a magazine feature. But he nixed a request from a local TV crew to be filmed baking cookies. "I will not do anything I don't normally do," said the media-savvy Lucas, still smarting from the headline used above a story that appeared in his hometown newspaper: "FHA Leader Deals With Roles, Not Rolls."

Invitations from Carson and Letterman and Rivers -- all of whom wanted to spoof his position -- were declined in favor of appearances before educators, congressional representatives and fellow members across the country. Lucas takes his job seriously. "I have to watch out for the organization and myself first."

He said his role as president was to "act as a public relations tool" and perpetuate FHA goals, which he did, in nearly a thousand interviews, speeches and presentatations, according to Lucas. To keep track of his comings and goings, his speeches and interviews, he kept six separate calendars and retained his mother as a secretary. And in the process of promoting the FHA, he missed half his senior year (not to mention prom night, which he spent stranded in an airport. His date "was mad, to say the least," said Lucas diplomatically. "Needless to say, we don't speak much anymore."). Along the way, he learned to do his homework in airports and get along on two hours' sleep a night or less.

Lest his year-long reign sound too strenuous, Lucas acknowledges the perks. Like flying cross country. Making contacts in business and politics. The applause. And the whistles. ("The girls don't hurt," he admitted.) Signing hundreds of autographs at state FHA gatherings. Heady stuff for a teen-ager.

Will he miss the attention? "I think we're all ready to get back to normal," said his mother. "I think he needs time to be a teen-ager."

Lucas will get his chance to do just that this summer, back home at the mall in nearby Barboursville, where instead of making speeches, he'll be making pizzas. Next fall, he plans to attend Marshall Community College in Huntington, W.Va., where he expects to study communications and public relations. Then he hopes to go on to Washington's American University, he said, and after that, law school.

More ambitious plans lie beyond. "I set one record by being the first male president of FHA," said Lucas. "I want to set another record by being the youngest president" of the United States. He ticked off a timetable that will see him running for governor at 25, the senate at 35, and the presidency at 37.

If his year-long reign is any sign of what's to come, the scenario isn't difficult to imagine. When he returned after his election to address the same businessmen who originally vetoed the idea of a male FHA president, Lucas walked away with a standing ovation -- and 280 business cards.

Already, it appears, he has a head start on the competition.