Nearly 400 prominent Virginians, including Lt. Gov. John Dalton and Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. paid tribute this week to one of the abiding voices of the Virginia press: Maj. Gen. E. Walton Opie (USA-Ret.), 83, whose Staunton Leader newspaper has been a trumpet of conservatism in the Shenandoah Valley for 73 years.

It was a particularly Virginian sort of gathering, a black tie ham-and-chicken dinner sauced with civic piety and political cant, leavened with the spirit of Opie himself - a sort of oldest living graduate of a vanishing way of life.

Lean and hungry looking as Shakespeare's Cassius - as he himself noted Monday night - Opie has spent most of the current century working his way through careers ranging from cavalry officer hunting Pancho Villa on the Mexican border to political artillery man for the late Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. in the governmental wars of Virginia.

Displayed at the champagne reception before the dinner were pictures of a uniformed Opie in the trenches of France, a helmeted Opie training troops during World War II and, some reason, singer Kate Smith sending Opie her autographed best regards.

Former Staunton Mayor Fred R. Pancake was only the first of six speakers to praise the "remarkable career" and feisty, unflagging independence of Opie, who has worked off and on for the Staunton paper (circulation: 19,000) since his publisher brother conned him into delivering it after school in 1904.

He still walks three miles to work everyday to pound out his own editorials castigating such national threats as too many voters, rapprochment with Cuba and the national Democractic Party, and lauding such causes as right-to-work laws, the Stonewall Jackson Memorial and the record of Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr.

Though somewhat reconciled at present to Jimmy Carter, Opie last fall was calling him "the darling of Democratic liberals" and said, "the prospect that this vacillating politician will be elected must be causing millions to shudder."

Analyzing the Humphrey-Hawkins labor bill, he concluded, "If Humph and Hawk get this dilly through Congress . . . the 94th will just be adding to its doleful record of stupidities."

The general has been so long linked with Byrd-type politics, former Mayor Pancake said, that the Staunton Kiwanis Club, which sponsored the dinner, delayed setting the date until it was certain that Byrd could come.

Lt. Gov. John Dalton praised Opie as a "model of the public-spirited community-oriented publisher," one of those who "know that the press is an integral part of the community and not any kind of ivory tower or place set apart."

Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr., who apologized for a previous commitment, sent a letter saying Opie has "reflected the highest standards of responsible journalism, insuring your readers of the opportunity to be informed of matters of public concern and seeking to mold public opinion in a constructive manner."

Sen. Byrd, who publishes his own Harrisonburg and Winchester newspapers just up the valley, praised Opie as a "true Virginian" who "epitomizes the finest in citizen service."

Twenty years ago Opie broke with Byrd's father over the latter's insistence that Virginia close her schools rather than submit to court-ordered racial desegregation. Opie editorialized throughout the period against the policy of massive resistance, arguing that integration was far preferable to ignorance.

"Often in controversy but never in doubt, he has enjoyed the esteem of his colleagues for outspokenness to a degree that has been the envy of those colleagues," said Richmond publisher D. Tennant Bryan, whose own editorial writers espoused no such position at the time.

"It is an honor to have participated in this tribute to an exemplar of the Virginia tradition of citizen, soldier, churchman, editor and publisher," Bryan continued. "He has brought credit to each of his careers and gives living proof that the character of the citizen is indeed the splendor of the state."

As the applause died, Opie himself stalked to the podium and announced the dinner "unquestionably the apogee of my life on earth . . . these things touch the heart. They have generated a feeling of humility which I shall nourish and a state of pride which I shall try to hold in control."

He reminded those present that despite the testimony of the evening's speakers about the value of his life, not everyone agreed.

Just the other day, he said, he had received a letter objecting to an editorial on voter registration that said, Opie "is a dangerous man . . . vicious . . . a prevaricator, he is against the people . . . he is a tool of selfish interest . . . "

Opie told the applauding crowd that he would have published the letter but it ran afoul of the paper's policy on libel and then, without compromising his soldierly demeanor, the old general tried to say thank you.

"I hope to attain the pearly gates," he said, "and I hope St. Peter will accept me as a sincere worker in the vineyard of the Lord. And if he does, I hope in coming years that enough of you will join me at the river in the shade of the trees so that we can have a picnic reunion.

"And if there is currency in heaven the party will be on me."