There was a time in the not too distant past when it seemed our annual fund drive for Children's Hospital would run out of steam before the Jan. 31 cutoff date.

About two weeks ago, a pipeline gurgle of, say, about three dozen letters was cause for jubilation. There dozen letters is closer to a trickle than a gurgle. The pace was slow.

I was completely convinced that the campaign was beginning to go into its death throes. We were still light years away from just $200,000. The intake of mail had tapered off gradually and things were rapidly approaching a point at which the "For the Love of Children" columnist would become very expendable.

Not a pleasant thought for me, or for the children.

Towards the middle of last week, a new and welcome trend began to take hold. The daily number of responses went back up to about what it was a week before Christmas.

Today the pipeline released 79 letters from late-starting District Liners. They were all postmarked in the month of January.

Better late than never.

Many of these late responses credited my constant reminders (I'd call it nagging) that too late was coming too fast. Scores of letter-writers apologized for mailing late, and expressed the hope that their gift would arrive at The Post in time to be included in this year's tally.

At Children's Hospital, anytime is a good time. Anytime at all feel free to visit the hospital, make a suggestion or ask a question. Feel free to relax in the lobby. And don't forget to feel free about bringing your child down to Children's Hospital in the event of a medical mishap.

Time was of the essence up until Thursday of last week. Checks arrived at The Post that had been hand-carried to the front door to negate any possibility of missing our deadline. Many District Liners moaned about good intentions gone bad, but still managed to squeak in under the wire.

One reader captured the true spirit of procrastination by explaining that she could win the national "top procrastinator" prize -- if she ever got around to entering the contest.

Helping the children is important enough to get even the most dedicated procrastinator out of the chair and down to the mailbox, check in hand. Hundreds made it to their mailbox. Those letters and the contributions that usually come with them will continue to trickle in until, and probably after, the last column of Feb. 9.

It was hard to believe that 79 letters from "anonymous" District Liners were delivered to me over the weekend. Those letters contained a total of $1,780.50 for the free-care fund. Add in the missives from 7 organizations or "informal groups" and we had a very happy, busy day.

Starting us out on the first full week of February, and the final week of "For the Love of Children," were the operators of a northern Virginia pizza parlor. Their shop has low rafters which are an inviting target for penny pitchers. They recovered $6.32 in small change for Children's Hospital.

Two groups chose $25 as a suitable representation of their desire to help maintain the availability of free pediatric care for needy children.

"We, the Silver Bullets, are a small and new charitable organization. We would like to donate $25 to Children's Hospital," members of this new group wrote. No easier said than done.

Employees of Chimney Sweeps Inc. are often invited to give presentations on wood heat safety. They ask that any honorarium be donated to the burn unit of a local hospital. Their most recent discussion was for the Lioness Club of Silver Spring, and the club's check for $25 was routed here "for the children."

A group of checks totaling $87 arrived some weeks ago without identification. Several attempts at calling the contributors finally yielded some information last night. A group of employees at the Consumer Product Safety Commission in Bethesda was the source of the gift.

A check for $100 was sent "on behalf of the Computer Science Center at Prince George's Community College."

The people over at Opportunity Systems Inc. jumped at the chance to assist the work being done at Children's Hospital. They took non-exchange of greeting cards one step further, diverting money for office presents into their contribution of $120.

Members of the AIRES Project at PRC Information Sciences Co. put "several penny collections, and a check for $50" to good use by sending the total of $145 to me for the young and needy patients at Children's Hospital. They also garnered top honors for today with their generous contribution.

These civic-minded and socially active organizations added $508.32 to the "individuals" effort of $1,780.50 for a total of $2,288.82. We had exactly $202,951.09 in the shoebox when it was locked up on Saturday, so now it holds $205,239.91.