On the first day of his retirement, Charles Price puttered around the azalea garden in the backyard of his Alexandria home.

"Some of the plants are 15 or 16 years old," said Price, who at 6 feet 3 inches tall and 240 pounds is the very version of a gentle gaint. "I can spend a little more time now caring for them, making sure they grow right."

His philosophy is not new; for 32 years he applied it to his work with teen-agers.

Price, at 55, can look back on a career as a coach, teacher and administrator that is dotted with the spectaculer.

In 1965, he broke the color barrier in Virginia. At the same time, he broke the mold by dealing, as he puts it, with the "hard core group (of kids) that just doesn't care."

Always, say his colleagues, Price carried a quiet crusade to show youngsters, the importance of education.

The year that Price made history was the first year of total school desegration in Norther Virginia. When he took the job as head football coach at the just-opened Langley High School in McLean, he became the first black in Virginia to head a football team in a racially mixed schoole.

Price was well aware of the pressures in a year when he wasn't the only black breaking down barriers. That first year, 1965, only about 30 black students were at Langley, out of a student body of about 1,800. Price admits he was concerned about his first year as head coach.

"There was a big hullabaloo about all that," recalls Price, who the year before had guided the football team at the all-black Luther Jackson High to a state championship. "I was little apprehensive when we opened for practice. aI was in a goldfish bowl.

"A lot of parents came out to see the practices at first. The team was small and only two of the five guys who were helping me coach knew anything about football. So I had to teach them too."

Earl Pulley, a longtime friend who remembers that first season, says Price is the main reason it went well.

"It was his personality that enabled him to get along in a situation like that," Pulley said recently. "He's big, kind, gentle and generous. The students grew fond of Charlie and their parents were impressed with the way their kids looked up to him. He proved he could work with any group, regardless of color."

Price taught phyiscal education and coached varsity football at Luther Jackson for six years before moving to Langely. Langely did not become a football power during Price's tenure. He recalls agonizing through a string of 20 straight losses, and during his four years as coach Langley lost more than it won.

But Price was interested in more than what was happening to students on the field, and he considers coaching an ideal place to reach youngsters that others may consider "unreachable."

"(Coaches) have a small number to work with and a different relationship with kids," he says. "Mainly black students for various reasons, are hard to reach. Public education offers enough to black students, but we can't push them into seeing a need for education.

Price, who also taught and coached in Roanoke for 11 years, grew up in Alexandria. He attended Parker-Gray, an All-black high school and was graduated from Virginia State, an all black college in 1948. His wife, son, daughter and daughter-in-law also are in education.

He says he decided to retire before the mandatory age of 65, so he would have some time to enjoy his retirement. Because he had taught more than 25 years, he was able to retire early and draw full pension benefits.

For Price, the end of his coaching career came after the 1969 season at Langley.

"I was still insisting on short haircuts," he says. "I was challenged by one player who didn't want to get a haircut. Finally, I said I wouldn't tell him to get it cut, but I'd just leave the scissors out in case he decided to cut it.

Although the player cut his hair, Price says he realized then that "coaching was behind me."

When school officials asked him to become assistant principal at Groveton High School in the fall of 1970, Price took the job.

"I went to watch a practice at Groveton that fall and I wondered how I'd done it for 23 years with all those kids," Price says. "I said I must have been crazy. They were years I enjoyed but I never looked back."

At Groveton, which has one of the larger Black enrollments in Fairfax County, Price moved into the often-frustrating role of disciplinarian. One of the first things he discovered as an assistant principal is that "there's a wall from the floor to the heavens between you and the kids."

"When I became an administrator, I really noticed how students had changed," Price says. "In the old black school, kids were seeking ways to escape through activities. Now kids already have so much, they don't look for the same things. Education is not number one now. Fun, as they call it, is cars, girlfriends, boyfriends and stereos.

"In administration, you try to be fair to all. You only have time to treat maybe one, two or three kids a year like your own kids. You walk the extra mile for those kids -- you win some of them and you loses some."

Over the years, said his colleagues, Price has won more students than he has lost -- students who have gotten scholarships, gotten jobs made their way in the world.

They're like the ones who at this year's commencement described him as "tough but fair" and who gave him a two-page spread in the 1980 yearbook, affectionately calling him. "A Bear of a Man."

But Price also remembers, with some pain, the ones he has lost. They are the kids who, on occasion, have painted his car, thrown eggs at his house, broken his windows. He owns a police dog for protection.

"High School is the last time in life where a kid can make a mistake and all is forgiven," says Price. "After high school, it starts to cost them. If they get into a fight, they go to a judge and maybe to jail, not to the administration with their "Rights and Responsibilities" handbook. I just cross my fingers for those kids."