Call them the unsung heroes They are the 12,000 nameless, faceless Fairfax County employes who check out your library books, mail your county tax forms and process your zoning applications.

Every year the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors honors several of those employes for their outstanding contributions to the county. This year, seven were selected by a citizens' committee to receive the A. Heath Onthank Award for Merit, which includes a $500 cash award.

Special writer Shula Beyer and photographer John Dwyier went to Fairfax County recently to talk with the award winners. Secretary's Innovative Methods

It's hard to imagine how the folks at Wakefield Elementary School can get along without Julia A. Chase.

Chase, who was the school secretary for 21 years, retired this summer, leaving a legacy of efficiency and good cheer.

"Nobody's indispensible. That's been my philosophy for a long time,' said Chase, of Annadale.

During her years at the school Chase saw many changes in enrollment and educational techniques. She was there long enough to see former students return to register their own children. She has not liked some of the changes.

"Students don't seem to work as hard as they use to," she said. "Television has changed many things."

According to county officials, Chase was nominated for the A. Heath Onthank award for her creation of a simplified administrative system that has saved the school money.

"I was always on looking out for ways to cut down on waste," she said. 'It's hard to be specific, but it was my theme all the time. I tried to simplify the paper work so that each paper would be handled only once." A Librarian's File on 'Roots'

It all happened so fast.

Dorothea deWilde, a Fairfax County reference librarian, was helping a woman search the records for her family history. Nearby, another woman overheard the two talking. She approached them and asked several questions, and within a few minutes the two women were hugging and talking with great excitement. They had just discovered they were second cousins.

That's when deWilde knew her efforts in setting up a local genealogy center in the Fairfax County Central Library were worthwhile.

"This was concrete proof that setting up such a room could help people find their roots and relatives," she said last week.

DeWilde, who worked 16 years as a county librarian before retiring in July, convinced her superiors five years ago that genealogy fever would sweep the country. DeWilde came to that conclusion before the nation's Bicentennial and before the telecast of the popular "Roots" series.

"I was anxious to latch onto what I believed would be a booming hobby," she said.

DeWilde, of McLean, embarked on a painstaking expedition to round up materials and records that would form a nucleus of information for the library. She wrote to every county in the state and to every state in the Union, pleading for any materials they could spare. She filed every morsel of information that could help amateur genealogists.

Often those facts became someone's passport for a journey into their family's past.

For example, one family came from the West equipped with only the name of the home where their forebears lived more than 100 years ago.

It was lucky that deWilde knew the house had been torn down to make way for I-66.

"I was aware of the home and had a file on it. I was able to give the family a list of people in Fairfax County to whom they are related," said deWilde.

Asked how she happend to know about that particular house, deWilde replied, "You just know those things."

I've never been so exciited in my life," she said. A Researcher's History Hunt

Nan Netherton thrives on dusty, ancient books and the long-forgotten contents of attics. She is responsible for publication of an 800-page history of Fairfax County.

Netherton, who now freelances out of her home in Falls Church, worked for the county Office of Comprehensive Planning for 10 years until she retired in February.

The research for the county history took her and her staff as far as England and California. Research was slow because Netherton insisted on studying primary sources instead of relying on the work of other historians.

Although she discovered that many valuable records were carted away from Fairfax County during the Civil War, she said she found some of her best sources right under her nose. In searcing through the attic of the county court house, Netherton found crates of old documents, including two books filled with the names of freed slaves. The books gave historians great detail on how the slaves obtained their freedom.

Through her research, Netherton said she found that the more things change, the more they remain the same. For instance, she said, land speculation in Fairfax County is as old as the first settlers.

"Nothing is new under the sun," she said. A Boss Who Gets Involved

Before Donald D. Smith took over the county zoning office it had a turnover of one employe every six weeks.

"Nobody's quit on me in 14 months," said Smith with pride.

Smith, 49, said he was able to turn the department around by making several changes. First, he asked for computer terminals to be used in issuing zoning permits. He then began holding staff meetings to air problems.

"I don't sit back and let the employes do all the work,' said Smith, who has worked with the county 13 years. 'I get in there with them behind the desk, greeting the public. The more work I do with them, the more work I'll get out of them."

Smith, an engineering technician in the Office of Comprehensive Planning, was transferred to the zoning office after he volunteered to help the swamped zoning clerks during the lunch hour rush.

"There were only two or three people behind the counter and they couldn't handle it alone," he said, explaining why he gave up his lunch hour to help out.

"It's not 100 percent here yet, but it's much better than it was," he said. A School Worker's Dedication $"I was disillusioned working in a regular school. The children were not well behaved,' said Barbara Willt, 27, a secretary at the Kilmer Special Education Center. "The work here is more rewarding. The children love to come to school. It is the highlight of their day."

Willt is one of seven Fairfax County employes who recently received the prestigious A. Heath Onthank Award. She was honored for her work in the consolidation of three centers for severely handicapped students into the new Kilmer facility in Vienna.

In honoring Willt, county officials noted that she spent countless hours of her own time last year, helping to lay the groundwork for the consolidation.

"It was very hectic," said Willt. "The staff and students all moved from centers that served about 60 students to one that serves more than 200. We didn't actually move into the building until Labor Day weekend."

Willt says she enjoys coming to work and has grown to love many of the children.

"Some are so precious, you just want to grab them and run with them," said Willt, who has no children of her own.

The most rewarding part of the day, she says, is in the morning when the children get off the bus and are thrilled to be in school.

"I can tell by their faces,and by their smiles.On Friday when we wish them a good weekend, their faces are sad. They ask, "Will you be here on Monday? Will we see you on Monday?'"

Not all the children can talk. In fact, most communicate through sign language or gestures. Sometimes it is difficult to understand what they are trying to say, but Willt says she has found a reservoir of patience.

"I'll tell them to repeat what they said. If I don't understand, I'll ask them to repeat again. They don't seem to mind," she said.

An important part of her work, although it is not part of her job description, is helping the parents cope with some of the problems of raising handicapped children.

"A lot have guilt feelings. Many think they could have done something to prevent the handicap," said Willt. "Anyone who doesn't have a handicapped child can't really imagine what it's like." New Citizen's Contribution

A story like this could happen only in America.

Chon Su Yi brought his family from Korea to the United States five years ago in hopes of finding a better life.

Now, he is in the process of filling out his citizenship papers and can proudly point to an award that names him one of Fairfax County's most outstanding employes.

Yi seems to be baffled by all the attention. As far as he is concerned he has done nothing more than what his job requires.

But Yi, a supply clerk in the support services department of the public school system, developed an inventory control system for refrigeration and air-conditining replacement parts that saved the county an estimated $20,000 in 1978 alone.

Yi explains in halting English: He listed and cross-referenced all parts that could be used interchangeably to repair the school system's equipment. Instead of buying an expensive brandname part, Yi can now order an identical, less expensive part manufactured by another company.

"He just did it above and beyond his regular job," said Gayle Atkins, Yi's supervisor. "He is an outstanding employe. He's always on the job; you never need to worry about him." A Fireman Who's Always 'on Duty'

It is not often that a fireman gets a chance to save a life while off duty.

For John Weatherholtz, a firefigter with the Centreville station, such an opportunity came last New Year's Eve.

Weatherholtz was driving on Lee Highway to visit relatives when he noticed a crowd and stopped. At the center of the crowd a woman was lying on the cold ground.

"She was not breathing. She went into full cardiac arrest," Weatherholtz recalled. "I gave here mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and another fellow pumped her chest."

Medics who arrived 15 minutes later treated the 37-year-old woman's heart with an electric charge and she was taken to a hospital.

"When they left I didn't think the woman would make it," Weatherholtz said. "But last I heard she's still home in a wheelchair, getting better all the time."

Weatherholtz said he has wanted to be a fireman ever since he can remember. He volunteered at the Centreville fire station when he was 16 and spent most of his free time talking with the oldtimers in the fire station.

Watherholtz said his wife, Dale, had to "put up with some hard times" when they first got married.

"I took calls as a volunteer when I was off duty. I spent more time in the fire station than I did at home. I reckon I have a very easy-going wife," he said.

"I really like my work. I feel that I am happy making a living. Maybe I don't make as much money as high executiives, but money isn't everything. It can't buy happiness."

Happiness for Weatherholtz means driving the big red engine, hunting small game in the West Virginia mountains and slowly building a retirement home on a small farm he has purchased in the Shenandoah Valley.

"I feel proud to be a fireman," said Weatherholtz. "A lot of people don't understand us. They think a fireman sits down all day, plays cards and shoots pool. They don't know that a fire-man's job is much more than that."