Royce L. Rusk is a working man. He was 14 years old when he took his first job, delivering messages for Western Union. On winter days, he would stuff a thick newspaper under his shirt to break the frigid wind that blasted him as he rode his motorcycle to such rural areas as Chevy Chase and Rockville. He made $44 to $46 a week -- far more than the $28 a week his father earned as the head mechanic in a Washington garage. It was good money in 1923.

In the years since, Rusk has worked as a mechanic, security guard, restaurateur and maintenance engineer. Most of the time he held two full-time jobs. He seldom took sick leave or vacations.

"I never put pleasure before work," he says. "My work always came first. I want to work until I die. My mother always said, 'As soon as you lay down, you die.' "

The trouble is the 81-year-old Rusk was fired in August from his $12-an-hour job as a maintenance engineer. He says it's not because he's incapable of performing the job. He says it's because the Board of Governors at the Capitol Hill Club, where he's worked since 1973, must cut costs, and chose him because older workers present higher insurance risks.

That's the crux of the $750,000 age discrimination suit he has filed in U.S. District Court. The list of defendants reads like a Who's Who in the Republican Party, including such celebrities as the club's honorary vice president, Barbara Bush; Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater; and pitcher-turned-congressman Jim Bunning.

The club denies discrimination, saying cuts are being made across the board. Attorneys for each side say they are trying to work out an amicable solution. Since September 1, the club has employed Rusk as "a consultant" at $125 a day, two days a week. Still, he continues to go there each weekday before 5 a.m., checking on the building's 11 bathrooms, the sewer lines, the heating and air conditioning, the refrigerators, ovens and steam tables. The club has extended Rusk's insurance twice, so he's covered through November.

Rusk says he would "hate to do anything that would make the Bushes look bad. Mrs. Bush is a fine person and so is he." And he says it's not money that he is really looking for.

"I want what I was promised. A job for a lifetime." Rusk was working next door at the Republican National Committee Building 17 years ago when the club's manager recruited him. Sixty-four at the time, he was worried about changing employers, but he says he took the job with the understanding that it would be a tenured position. "I was told, 'You'll always have a job here.' "