ONE DAY IN the fall of 1939, a blond-haired boy arrived at the District's institution for the retarded in the countryside of Laurel. He was nine years old, the son of a serviceman and his wife whose marriage was breaking up. Back in those days, courts sometimes sent children of broken homes to institutions if there was no other place for them. We didn't know about slow learners and learning disabilities then. A speech impediment could get a child labeled retarded. So the boy, whose name was Warren Tillyer, and who has always tested as mildly retarded, was sent to what later became Forest Haven.

He was an apprehensive child when he arrived, nervous and sensitive to rejection, according to his voluminous records. In later years, he ran away from the institution repeatedly, somehow finding his way to New York, Florida, the Midwest, always searching, according to psychiatric records, for a family. Then, in 1961, he settled down and social workers helped him get into vocational rehabilitation programs and he found work, first on the grounds of Forest Haven, later in Laurel.

But in 1965, he had a severe accident on the job and several of his toes were crushed and had to be amputated. One day during his recuperation, he found himself on crutches, trying to manage in the dining room of the institution, and it was there that he met Viola Smith, a shy, soft-spoken woman with a magical smile who began to take care of him.

"I promised myself a long time ago when I was on crutches and she waited on me hand and foot, I promised I would get her out of the institution," says Warren Tillyer. Last Friday, he did. He and Viola Smith were married, after 13 years of trying to overcome the prejudices that have held that the retarded have rights to some things -- but not all things.

Theirs is a story of two extraordinary people who were labeled and institutionalized in a time when the world held little promise for them. Theirs is also a story about love and determination and about changing attitudes and people who really believe in helping those less fortunate than themselves. And it is one that tells us how far we have come in developing a more humane and positive approach to helping what we now call the developmentally disabled and one that shows us just how much they can do, if given the chance.

Warren Tillyer was discharged from the institution two years ago and is now holding a government custodial job. Viola Smith, who is moderately retarded, is now in a training program and living with her husband in an apartment. She is still committed to the institution and is the first such person to marry.

"They have been trying to get married a long time," said Gwen Kimbrough, the head of residential services at the institution, who found out about the couple's desire to marry shortly after taking the job 15 months ago, "but because of attitudes of various people here, they didn't allow them.

"The attitude that prevailed was that retarded persons couldn't function in normal life activities," Kimbrough said at the reception for the couple in a room at the hall where Viola Smith lived. "I think it's changing. They're just like you and I and they can do what you and I can do, given time and given exposure and given an attitude on the part of people that says you can do it."

Exactly why Viola Smith ended up in Forest Haven is not clear. She is 59 years old now, and was admitted in 1949 when she was 28 years old and a vagrant, according to the few records of her life at the institution. She was one of 10 children whose mother died in 1947.

When asked why she came to Forest Haven, she says simply, "My father drinks." Like Warren Tillyer, she has almost no contact with her family. Her brothers and sisters, she says, "don't know where I'm at." Warren Tillyer had a brother who was committed to the institution at the same time he was, but the brother left years ago. Warren says his mother lives in Mount Rainier, but he does not see her. "I've got nobody buy Viola. They never helped me."

Warren Tillyer left the institution to live on his own in Washington 10 years ago, but remained committed to its care. He made the difficult commute to Laurel to see Viola Smith, often taking taxicabs, which cost $30 roundtrip. Sometimes he would travel to Forest Haven and bring her into Washington and then take her back in the evening. In a touching essay they wrote about the Tillyers' wedding, James Whitelock, a unit chief who has known and helped Warren Tillyer for 19 years, and Pauline Moss, a social worker, chronicled the steps he took toward marriage.

"Warren Tillyer," they wrote, "had specific aims and goals when he left Forest Haven. First, he wanted to be discharged from Forest Haven to be independent, find his own way, develop his life with his beloved Viola. Along with bringing before the appropriate staff his desire for a discharge he began planning. He purchased life and health insurance policies for Viola and himself. He began a savings account at a bank." They took trips to Florida and Arkansas by themselves and group trips to New York and Florida.

Viola Smith is now in a mailing-system training program at Anchor House in Washington and she will have a full-time job when she finishes, either in mailing or housekeeping, which she has also done. The couple will live in his apartment in Mount Rainier and commute by bus to work. He will teach her how to use the bus system. She will be released from Forest Haven gradually. "He's ready to do a real good thing," said Gwen Kimbrough. "They really care for each other."

For the Tillyers, this will be a very special Christmas, one they can finally share after waiting 13 years for society to catch up with them. It was Viola who best said what being able to marry Warren means. With that wonderful smile, she answered, simply:

"Life."