TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, when the forerunner of The Washington Post Magazine came to life as Potomac, it would have been unthinkable to have a magazine without a Cover Girl. And for this magazine, which was to reflect the essence of Washington in a lighthearted, largely pictorial way, the Cover Girl had to represent what was then known as -- pardon us, Women of the 1980s -- the Government Girl. To select one young woman from one agency would have been, as Richard Nixon liked to say, "the easy way." Besides, we were thinking big. So there they were, on the first cover of the first issue of Potomac, striding purposefully out of the Federal Triangle into the camera: not one but four young women, Government Girls if you will, roommates in a house near Dupont Circle, working their way to glory in four government offices. "They Don't Want to Go Home," the headline said, and inside there were three pages full of photos of our cover girls at work and at play: "Four Career Girls Enjoy Bright, Busy Lives." Lee DeVore had come from Montana to be an information specialist for the Agriculture Department. Connie Downey, from San Francisco, was classifying documents at the Pentagon. Noreen Potts, from Everett, Wash., worked on the staffof Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson (D-Wash.) Carole Rapp, from Rochester, N.Y., programmed computers for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Each girl claims her job is the best," we wrote in those innocent days. "None has any regrets about having come to Washington."

And so, as the curtain rose on John F. Kennedy's New Frontier, we left our four cover girls poised on the threshold of their promising careers. Ahead of them lay (for one brief, shining moment) Camelot, the Great Society, the war on poverty and the war in Vietnam, riots and assassinations, Watergate and Watergate witness Gordon Strachan's advice to young people considering government work: "Stay away." What had become of them, we wondered as we looked at that first, faded cover photo: had they gone home after all, disillusioned with the outcome of all they had worked for in those "Bright, Busy Lives?"

To find out, we had to find them first. Lee DeVore, it turned out, had been married the day before her cover debut, and not to the man we had photographed her dating. Her daughter was born a year later, and in 1963 she left Washington for Denver, where the Bureau of Public Roads sent her husband, Richard Cowdery. They spent seven years there and added a son before moving to Kansas City for two years, then to Portland, Ore. for seven years and finally to Boise, where her husband was federal highway administrator for Idaho until his retirement last summer.

We found Lee Cowdery painting a ceiling in an Idaho mountain retreat two hours from Boise. She had left her job when her daughter was born, and had resumed work in Boise, as administrator of a National Cancer Institute statistical study of breast cancer in the Rocky Mountain states. Now the group's only grandmother, she readily agreed to fly east for a reunion with her Washington roommates.

We found Connie Downey closer to Washington, in a West Virginia farmhouse she had bought and renovated for weekend use while still at the Pentagon. She had retired from government in 1984 after a career that spanned four departments and a host of special committees, most notably as director of a task force on alternatives to abortion for the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1977, which ended when her memo to HEW Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. characterizing those alternatives as "suicide, motherhood and, some would add, madness" was leaked to an Associated Press reporter. Among other things, she had been on the task force that drafted the Johnson administration's war on poverty, had worked on urban renewal and equal employment policy at HUD, had returned to the Pentagon for two years to organize its federal women's program and, after directing HEW's Offices of Special Concern, had stayed on as a policy analyst at HEW's successor, Health and Human Services. Since retiring, she was spending most of her time in Taos, N.M., painting, skiing and doing consulting for businesses and federal agencies, including a study for the Immigration and Naturalization Service on the employment of illegal aliens.

We found that Noreen Potts had left Capitol Hill in the early 1960s but still lived there, in a house she had bought in 1967. After working at the Democratic National Committee in the 1960 Kennedy campaign, when Sen. Jackson was national chairman, she found work back in Jackson's Senate office less interesting and soon left to head the Washington office of a new foreign aid lobby, the Citizens' Committee for International Development. She worked as a political consultant for Democratic House and Senate candidates in the 1964 elections, and then joined the Interior Department's Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, working on urban parks, environmental issues and especially on the establishment of a national park at Assateague Island. During Nixon's first term, now Noreen Lyday, she moved to Minneapolis for three years while her economist husband taught at the University of Minnesota. When they returned, she ran seminars on land use policy for the Urban Institute and an energy conservation conference for the National Science Foundation, wrote a book on the National Land Use Policy Act for the Ford Foundation and worked as a volunteer supervisor in Geraldine Ferraro's vice presidential campaign.

Finally we found that Carole Rapp had left Washington late in 1965 when she was unexpectedly offered a job at the United Nations, where a new computer system had just been installed. Now Carole Thompson, with a 10-year-old son, she lives in Manhattan and still works at the United Nations as coordinator of technological innovations for the Secretariat's Department of Conference Services, a job that involves solving such problems as satellite transmission of conference documents from remote meeting sites to New York for translation and retransmission to the conferees. She agreed to squeeze in a weekend in Washington for our cover girls' reunion as soon as she got back from a U.N. trip to Chile.

We were able at last to bring them together to recreate their cover pose at the Federal Triangle and to visit the house they had shared on 21st Street near Dupont Circle. There they reminisced about the day the cockroaches crawled out of the holes in the kitchen pegboard and the night they dumped some fragrant leftover crabs in their rear-alley trash can. They found the old neighborhood, while now much more fashionable, looking much as it had in the early '60s; they even found the same neighbor next door. But the years had brought a series of changes, as the career- oriented groups of their day had given way to the social activists of the late '60s and early '70s, and as these in turn had been replaced by the yuppie couples who could afford today's house prices. "They're much more like you" than the activists were, their former neighbor told them. Over a leisurely brunch, they reflected on their experiences in the Washington of 25 years ago. It was a time when women had to work actively at avoiding the trap of dead- end jobs. They were, Connie Downey said, "a generation of women who were lucky if they couldn't type, because they all would have ended up as typists." Like Downey, who "kept quiet" about her typing skills at the Pentagon, Carole Thompson could type but avoided becoming a typist. Having come to the Labor Department from Cornell as a management intern, she became only the second computer programmer at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Computers became a tool of advancement for them. "I couldn't get into administration until I got into computers," Downey said. Lee Cowdery, trying to resume her career after raising two children, and finding that western cities couldn't match Washington in "the availability of jobs for educated women," had to learn to use computers as a hospital volunteer.

Clothes, they recalled, were a matter for concernthen. "Nobody called it dress for success," Downey said, "but we dressed to differentiate ourselves from the secretaries." With men controlling all the career-advancement networks, "We had to learn the importance of having lunch," Thompson said. While they may have lacked role models, they didn't have the insecurities of today's career women, Downey declared: "We never had to worry about whether we were being hired because we were women."

Much has changed here in 25 years, but young people keep coming, many of them drawn, as our cover girls were, by hopes of playing a role in shaping the country's public life. Today's newcomers still find sharing houses a good way to keep costs down, although these days Washington's group houses frequently include both men and women.

For our cover girls, the changes they saw in the city were mostly improvements. "Washington is a much better city now than in the '60s," said Noreen Lyday, recalling the clothes-shopping and theater trips to New York then. "The only thing you can't get here is good deli food."

But for all of Washington's shortcomings then, our cover girls agreed that they were fortunate to have been here when they were starting out.

"I enjoyed Washington immensely," Carole Thompson recalled. "It was full of exciting young people who were just setting out on their careers. Because we were without families, we made a community of our own age group."

Connie Downey said, "We got more responsibility sooner here than we could have gotten anywhere else."