The applause started slowly, almost politely. Then it began building and growing. Finally everyone in the jampacked Prince George's County Council hearing room was standing, clapping loudly.

Winfield M. Kelly Jr. gave a nervous wave, bowed his head momentarily and then sat down, his eyes glistening with tears he apparently did not want to shed during his final moments as county executive.

For Kelly, the final hours of his term yesterday were clearly emotional ones and just as clearly part of an experience he wanted to put behind him.

He arrived at the last moment and left as quickly as he could, obviously not in any mood to play the politician, in a political world that was now revolving around someone else.

"You have to understand," his former aide John Lally said. "He's glad this chapter is over."

But before Kelly could close the chapter and return to private life, he had to sit through the inauguration ceremony of the man who defeated him resoundingly, Lawrence J. Hogan.

It was not easy.

He arrived a few minutes before the ceremony started, skipping the preceremony breakfast to which Hogan had invited him. "I invited Winnie to this and to everything else including the ball tonight," Hogan said during the breakfast. "But I've only seen him once since election day."

Kelly was as dapper as ever in a dark blue three-piece suit when he walked into the council hearing room but the quick smile that was almost a trademark was gone, almost as if it had been stripped from him along with his office.

He shook hands with Hogan, his wife Ilona and their son Lawrence Jr. and then sat quietly during the 80-minute ceremony, nervously smiling only briefly and then apparently waging a private battle to keep his emotions under control.

"I was touched by the ovation," he said "It's emotional for me in that people were so kind with their applause. That was nice of them."

But there was more to it than that.

Kelly's complete identification with the job of county executive had already been apparent for years, A self-made millionaire and native Prince Georgian, he had also taken on the job of improving the couty's image as a personal mission with his "New Quality" program.

His devotion to the job and to county government seemed to manifest itself when the council members were sworn in -- from time to time, Kelly silently mouthed the words of the oath as other people were taking it.

After the ceremony, when he tired of answering reporters' questions, Kelly wasted no time in leaving the building he had worked in for four years.

"I'm just going to knock around with some of my people today and then rest for a while," was all Kelly would say about the future.

After that, he slipped up to newly elected council member Deborah R. Marshall's office for a quick glass of champagne and then he was gone. Even Lally and Council member Gerard T. McDonough, one of Kelly's closest friends, did not know where.

For Winnie Kelly, the ordeal was over.