Rough Waters Ahead" warns a cartoon propped against a bookshelf in the office of the Fairfax County executive.

The black-and-white drawing is a caricature of J. Hamilton Lambert manuveuring a rowboat through alligator-infested waters -- each snapping alligator labeled with the name of a county supervisor: John F. Herrity, Marie B. Travesky, James M. Scott . . .

Across the room sits the subject of the cartoon, 39-year-old lambert.

The county executive is perched on a sofa, chain-smoking Camels and not looking at all like fodder for the supervisors. In fact, for the past two years, Lambert has been acting county executive. During that time, the supervisors have carefully and consistently courted Lambert, trying to convice him to drop the "acting" from his title and become the permanent county executive.

Last week, the supervisors succeeded.

Lambert is no stranger to Fairfax County. At 18 he took a job as an assistant map maker for the county. Since then, he has worked for only one employer, the County of Fairfax.

Did he dream of running the county as he toiled behind a drafting table?

"No, I don't think so," he says, reddening slightly. "I just wanted a job". Lambert -- Jay to his friends -- demonstrated an amazing sense of timing when he suddenlyaccepted the county's top office, which had been offered to him at least twice. County supervisorssay his decision came only a few weeks befor they plannned to give up and offer the job to one of six candidates recruited by an independent consulting firm.

Despite Lambert's reputation as a "personable" man who will discuss almost any subject,the county rumor mill is the only place with an "explanation" of why Lambert initially refused the offerto become county executive.

Lambert isn't talking, and neither are the supervisors.

"I'd prefer not to comment," he says, flashing a grin. "The reasons were personal."

"When I heard what his reasons were (for not taking the post), I respected him," recalls supervisors' Chairman John F. Herrity. "No, 2 won't reveal what those considerations were."

Some people say it was the residency requirement that made him balk.

Lambert and his wife Catherine have lived in Leesburg, in Loudoun County, all their lives.

"The move was definitely a factor," says Montgomery County's chief adminstrative officer Robert Wilson, who worked with Lambert in Fairfax andis a close friend. "Jay's social life is inLoudoun, his working life is in Fairfax. That makes the move very difficult."

Some observers believe that Lambertinitially lacked confidence. He is one of the few top county administrators without a degree beyond his diploma from Loudoun High School, from which he graduated in 1959. But those same observers say Lambert has quickly overcome the confidence problem, especially with his two years as acting county executive, and supervisors have no doubts about hisability to do the job.

"Jay has the credentials of on-the-job doing," says Herrity. "He's got the highest IQ of anyone in the Massey Building."

Lambert is a private man -- one who will talk at length about sewers, sludge and county government, but blushes when asked about his personal life and suggests trying to pry the facts out of friends.

"He is very private," agrees Wilson."That's the type of person who rises to the top offices of county government."

Lambert's beguiling round face, blue-gray eyes and even-toothed smile beg for an adequate description. Press accounts have called him puckish,bullish and pudgy.

He seems to be a cross between Paul Williams and Jack Nicholson. In conversation he will often deadpan for disarming a visitor by flashing an unexpected smile.

Soft-spoken and thoughtful, Lambert does not fit the "good ole boy" image many cosmopolitan Northern Virginians have of their Loudoun County neighbors. Lambert says he reads for pleasure instead of hunting and fishing.

Lambert's only unorthodox behavior might be his penchant for hot cars -- Corvettes became his trademark several years ago.

But it's Lambert's "down to earth" image and hardworking history that have earned himthe loyality of many county employes.

Throughout the ranks of county government last week was a sense of excitement at Lambert's acceptance.

"We were just ecstatic," says Pat Silvey, president of the Fairfax County Employes Advisory Council. "The board made a very wise decision."

Lambert's rise to the top has fostered a sense of pride among the employes who perceive him as one of their own who made it.

Top slots in government are usually filled with executives loaded with degrees and paper credentials who frequently are unfamiliar with the concerns of other workers.

"He's one of us -- and he's very muchin favor of upward mobility," says Silvey.