The past 10 days have not been easy for Arlington County Manager W. Vernon Ford, the man in the middleof a bitter dispute between Police Chief Roy C. McLaren and Commonwealth's Attorney William S. Burroughs Jr. over one of the county's most spectacular murder cases in recent years.

The dispute between police officials and Burroughs over how to proceed with the murder investigation has simmered for more than a year since Alan Foreman, 26, and his fiance, 25-year-old Donna Shoemaker, were found shot to death in Foreman's garage. A trial last October resulted in the acquittal of a suspect.

Early last week McLaren, without notifying Ford, sent a letter to the chief judge of the Circuit Court requesting that an investigative grand jury be empaneled. McLaren's action enraged Burroughs and clearly displeased Ford who has said his caveat to department heads including McLaren is, "No surprises, please."

Ford rescinded McLaren's request.

"I'm like Cyrus Vance," Ford said last week. "I don't generally get involved in (criminal) cases, but my role as a manager is to try and mediate conflict."

A consummate "detail man," former Fulbright fellow and self-described "country boy," the 43-year-old Ford is one of the most powerfuland assiduously low-profile people in Arlington County government. He became manager two years ago and earns $51,900 per year.

A rail-thin man with china blue eyes, a folksy manner and a wry sense of humor, Ford is a no-nonsense administrator who enjoys publicity about as much as cats enjoy baths.

"Everytime I make the (news-papers I consider it a failure," he said during a recent two-hour interview in his office, distinctively furnished with antiques from the country store his grandfather, a former state legislator, founded in Loudoun County a century ago.

For the past 19 years, many of them as assistant county manager, Ford has shaped police as well as kept track of the minutiae involved in administering a $150 million budget and running a county of 154,000 people.

"Vernon has an amazing memory," said fiscal analyst Ted Becker, one of the 2,500 county employes Ford supervises. "He knows where every tree is in the county and who paid for it."

Once a virtually all-white, middle-class suburb peopled by upwardly mobile government workers and their families, Arlington in the last decade has shrunk in population and has grown increasingly urban and ethnically diverse.

While some of his counterparts in otherjursidictions are busily trying to be electedor are being summoned before elected officials for unsatisfactory performance reviews, Ford has apparently won the confidence of the five-member county board at whose pleasure he serves. Three board members are endorsed by the Democratic Party and two by the Republicans.

Ford is Arlington's fifth manager in nearly 50 years; all his predecessors have retired. In the past five years Fairfax County has had four county executives, one of whom quit abruptly in the middle of a board meeting.

"Being a manager is almost like being a preacher in a small town," said a longtime friend of Ford's and former manager of a Virginia county who declined to be identified. "You have to be very circumspect about what you do. Vernon's a good Loudoun County boy. He's personally very conservative, a devoted family man, religious, extremely conscientious and honest.

"If you're measuring power interms of the degree of control, then there's no question that Vernon is more powerful than managers in the big three (Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George's counties). That's partly a function of the size of the bureaucracy, which is twice as large as Arlington's. In the big three there's no way that you can get down into an organization and start mucking around."

In Arlington the county manager hires department heads. In Fairfax County the board of supervisors has hiring power.

"Vernon is deeply involved in day-to-day administration," said county board chairman John W. Purdy of Ford, a meticulously organized man who refuses to have a desk, goes home every day for lunch and wears only white shirts to work.

"He's very capable of making policy innovations," Purdy said. "It comes across at every meeting. Most of the board's policy decisions originate with the county staff."

Board vice-chairman Ellen M. Bozman said that Ford is generally most influential in non-controversial matters.

"We listen very carefully to his opinion but depending on what the issue is, we don't substitute his opinion for ours," she said. "On things like gun control and land use we listen to other people rather than the staff."

On matters board members consider to be administrative, including controversial and widely publicized disputes like the one involving Burroughs and McLaren, Ford is given wide latitude to operate as he sees fit.

"I think the manager should be accessible but no compete with board members," Ford said, leaning back in a worn green vinyl upholstered chair, the only comfortable seat in an office of straight-backed wooden chairs that match the decor.

"You have to know where the pencils are, and (former county manager) Bert Johnson's way of finding where the pencils were was through me," Ford said. "He never said it but I always had the feeling that Bert Johnson wanted to be mayor. That's not at all what I want," he said, looking slightly horrified at the thought.

"He was my hatchet man," said Johnson, who acknowledged that he depended heavily on Ford. "I trusted him without equivocation."

Ford is a member of what one colleague called the "A.U. Mafia," a group of American University PhD candidates in government in the early 1960s that includes Alexandria City Manager Douglas Harman, Baltimore County Executive Theodore G. Venetoulis who is also a Maryland gubernatorial aspirant and former Fairfax County executive Robert Wilson, now chief administrative officer in Prince George's County.

"The real Vernon Ford is exactly what you see," said county attorney Jerry K. Emrich, chewing thoughtfully on a matchstick. "There's nor artifice and Vernon is certainly not flashy. Day in and day out he remains quite calm, although some of these citizens he has to deal with can be such asses."

His secretary Betty Johnson (no relation to Bert Johnson), who met Ford when he was an undergraduate at the University of Richmond said, "He doesn't like zip codes, he doesn't think you should have a bank account number, he didn't like pant suits on women but he got used to them. He doesn't write memos and he thinks that anything that can't be said in one page isn't worth saying."

"Vernon's a loner," said public works director Hank Hulme, one of four department heads who make up a sort of inner circle. "he doesn't pal around with people." Ford does not make decisions at lunch, on the golf course or over a beer after work, but rather at weekly meetings with department heads, some of whom have considerable independence.

"If you mean do people go in after work and prop their feet up on desks and talk things over, no, there's nothing like that, but there are three or four people Vernon bounces things off of," said Hulme, a man with a manner as direct as the boss he knew as a boy in Loudoun County.

"Vernon is very interested in helping the people who work for him cope," said Tony Gardner, the county's chief of fiscal analysis. Gardner noted that Ford has taken a course in Parent Effectiveness Training ("identifying feelings in a non-blaming way" according to Gardner), a technique Ford uses on the job as well as with his two young children.

He'd like me to say he's stingy, that he spends the county's money as if it was his own," said Gardner. However, family life is a topic Ford clearly does not wish to discuss. Even his office is devoid of the requisite family photographs.

In 1967, after a 10-year courtship, Ford married Patricia DeLashmutt, the daughter of a former Arlington real estate developer and bank president. A financial statement filed by Ford last year lists the value of their property holdings in Arlington and Alexandria as close to $2 million.

Some county officials say that Ford's weakness as an administrator lies in his dealings with employe groups and unions.

"Something is missing in terms of establishing rapport," said Purdy. "I don't think his approach develops confidence that he is anything but a hardline management person."

Firefighters Association spokesman Harry Brady put it this way: "He's an excellent administrator and a good listener but I'd like to see him do something once in a while, like on the hair thing."

Brady criticized Ford's support of a former fire chief who ordered firefighter to cut their hair for safety reasons. Brady and other firefighters contended the order was arbitrary and merely represented the chief's personal grooming standards.

Others say Ford does too much. Several police officers have complained that Ford's involvement in the murder investigation dispute is meddling in a police matter.

Other officials note that Ford has mellowed since he took Arlington top job. Hulme cited a story which may be apocryphal but has nevertheless been widely circulated:

"He used to be meticulous almost to a fault," Hulme recalled. "He was always checking up on the janitors, and was really hot on the cleanliness of the building to the extent that he would put matchsticks in the urinals at night and check on them in the morning. I never asked him about it, but people who know him find that story in character."