ROBERT C. NEWELL is missing. He's been missing since Christmas Eve, 1974, when he was seen carrying a red-and-green checked suitcase. It was 7 p.m. and the people who saw Newell asked him where he was going. He said he was going to see his girlfriend in Boston or maybe his brother in Tennessee, and then he walked off with that limp of his, a little fellow on the way to nowhere. He was 64 years old and he left behind a small amount of money and lots of questions. It's important that he be found.

What I know of Newell I know from a letter that came in the mail. The letter was typed on the stationery of the Capitol Hill United Methodist Church and it was accompanied by a picture of Newell. At the top of the picture it says "wanted" in big gothic letters and then in smaller letters it says "by his friends and neighbors." Beneath the picture is a description. The picture itself shows a man with a soft smile. He is wearing a tie and a suit jacket and there is something mischievous in his eyes. At least I see it.

Sometime before he disappeared. Newell got religion. He used to attend the Thursday night church suppers and he sat next to a man named Neil Scott. It was Scott who wrote me about Newell, and it was Scott who told me about later that Newell was something of a character. Scott said he didn't talk much but Newell did tell him he worked for the FBI and used to go to the races with J. Edgar Hoover. It turned out that he didn't work for the FBI, probably never went to the track with Hoover and might not have had a girl friend in Boston. He did, however, occasionally go to the track, and as for women there was one he thought he was going to marry. He lent her some money and she used it to fly to California and marry another man. Scott learned that and put it in his letter.

Scott learned a lot about Newell. He learned where his relatives were and he contacted them and he learned who Newell's neighbors had been and he found them, too. He learned that Newell had been in the service and that his old Navy buddies had called him "Bobbin' Bob" - because he looked like a cork bobbing in the water when he walked. He learned that on Veterans' Day Newell would dress up in his American Legion uniform and he would walk around Capitol Holl, proud and ramrod stiff. Scott said there was always something military about the man.

On the Thursday after Christmas, Newell didn't show for the church dinner and the next Sunday he didn't show for the service either. He used to come and sit through the sermon, sometimes talking a bit too loudly to himself in a deep, gravelly voice that carried through the church. Sometimes he would check his watch in disbelief, take it off and whack it against the pew as if to get it started. He did that a lot and some people thought he was eccentric.

Anyway, for a while people wondered about Newell and where he had gone. The church searched, calling here and there, but soon people stopped wondering and they went on with their lives. At first Scott was one of those who had a mild interest in the old man, but then he got angry. So he called the police and the police eventually sent someone to interview Scott, and what they said, in essence, was that they could do nothing. There was no evidence of foul play. A man has a right to disappear. People do it all the time.

Scott was unemployed at the time (he now works temporarily in the Senate post office), so he devoted his time to finding Newell. He talked to the FBI and he talked to the Navy and he got the Salvation Army to list Newell in the missing persons column of their magazine and to search for him in Boston and Florida. Newell said he visited those places from time to time, but no one knew for sure. In fact, there was little anyone knew for sure.

There was more in the letter and when you put it down you thought you knew Newell and for reasons you couldn't quite put your finger on, you liked the man. But there was something else working in that letter that was harder to spot and it caused me to read it three or four times.

Finally I showed it to a colleague and he read it and then his face turned somber and he said something about how it was about a fear of his - I don't remember his exact words. But he said something about how he was always afraid of just disappearing without a trace and how life would go on as if he had never existed. I knew exactly what he meant and it's something I think we all think about, which is why, I suppose we think about our own funeral - the people mourning at the graveside, the way we would be missed.It's reassuring.

So I called Scott and I asked him about himself and why he was searching for Newell. He told me he is 37 and a political science graduate of Kent State and something of a professional campaign worker. He worked for McCloskey and McGovern and McGovern again in his Senate race and Udall the last time out. He lived in a furnished room and he is the volunteer communications director of the church and he said yes. I was right - he would not allow the world to go on as if a man name Robert C. Newell Jr. never walked the earth with that limp of his. You can understand now why it's important that he be found.

It's particularly important to men who live alone in furnished rooms.