Last Nov. 16, Jean Werner successfully defended her honors thesis toward a bachelor's degree in government and politics from the University of Maryland. The next day Paul Werner, her husband of 23 years, died on the living room couch in their Oxon Hill home.

On Dec. 22, with her three children in attendance, the 42-year-old Werner was graduated in the top five in her class, collecting enough academic prizes to paper the study and strengthening considerably her chances for admission to the nation's better law schools.

The prizes, she says, just diverted her pain.

"It seemed so terribly unfair, the timing," she says now, through a curl of cigarette smoke, sitting at her dining room table on a still, winter afternoon. c"I'd had all the fun for four years at college. It was going to be his day. It was going to be his degree."

"Bad timing" is the term Jean Werner is most comfortable with now. It is a catch phrase that swallows the grief.

Over 23 years, the timing was nearly perfect. After marrying at 19 and raising two sons, now 21 and 19, and a daughter, 10, Jean Werner veered off into politics and academia. In these activities she had the complete support of her husband -- a self-taught man 15 years her senior who quoted Shakespeare and read avidly when he wasn't teaching in the Army's medical services divison or, later, locksmithing for a firm in Virginia. Now, at a time of celebration and renewal that was supposed to be shared, there's a void.

And the purpose of Paul Werner's support, his urging, has become clear. Jean Werner is prepared for the second half of her life.

"He always told me, 'If you want to go do it, go do it.' And I always went ahead and did it," says Jean Werner. She was assistant campaign manager for Maryland Secretary of State Fred Wineland's congressional bid in 1976; Prince George's County delegate to the '76 Democratic convention; and manager of Angelo Castelli's '78 campaign for school board representative.

After Wineland was defeated, Werners daughter Jean Marie had turned 5 and her sons were well into their teens, so she decided to go on to school. After years of grass-roots involvement in local politics and various clubs and committees, she entered Prince George's Community College in 1976. Two years later she transferred to Maryland.

"When the children were young, I never gave thought to school. Once I get involved in anything, I get involved all the way, and you can't do that with little children. But Jean Marie has always had so many parents -- her father, and the two boys, and her father's sister and the neighbors here. And I think that going back to school made me a better mother, and a better wife. I've looked at motherhood in a much more interesting way.

"So I decided to go back. Paul was enthusiastic. He knew me. He understood everything I said. He was a friend, and a confidant, and, sometimes, an enemy.It was a multidimensional relationship."

Mentor, manager and vicarious participant, Paul Werner was also a competitor -- driving her on, sometimes to the extreme, and she responded by taking on more and more. Once, in six days during final exams week, she organized and executed a rally for then-dark horse Jimmy Carter that drew 6,000 people.

"Sometimes," she says, "it was even a little frightening. You've always to to live up to his expectations.

"He claimed that I'd finally passed him, but I had to beat him." She smiles. "He had 15 years on me. I had to do all my things at once to measure up. It was fun, that trying to compete. He used to recommend a book to me -- say, Philip Wylie -- and I'd have to go to the dictionary on each page. He'd say, 'Maybe you're not ready for that,' and I'd go back and read it again."

In 1973, six years after his retirement as a sergeant first class, her husband suffered a minor stroke. In the fall of 1979, a week into her 10-week honors thesis program, he suffered another. It was a minor stroke physiologically, but it was cruel and decisive. Paul Werner had always lived for his words -- written, spoken, thought. The stroke took some away.

"It destroyed his ego, because he could not articulate complex thoughts. He could think them, the same as ever, but he could not articulate them." She wanted to leave school. He persuaded her to stay. It was then, perhaps, with two months of work remaining, that Jean Werner's quest for a degree became Paul's too.

"On the 16th (of November), after I'd defended the thesis, we toasted my success. We decided we'd enjoy our day together on Dec. 22. It was time to go on to a new reality."

Twenty-four hours later, Paul Werner's heart slowed, then stopped.

She made it through the graduation ceremony that celebrated her extraordinary success. She made it through a Phi Kappa Phi initiation, a ceremony at which she had planned to leave the podium and pin the PKP tie tack onto Paul's tie in the audience. She made it through Christmas, distracted by and grateful for the attention showed on her by those hailing her achievements.

In many ways, this acclaim marks the blossoming of Jean Werner's life. Her name is listed in "Who's Who in American Politics" ("That's neat," she says). Her graduation awards include Cum Laude, a general honors citation, the senior honors award, membership in the Mortar Board, Pkp, Phi Sigma Phi. All are herlads of things to come. They represent past accomplisments, but they also stand for new beginnings.

But there is also a flag flying in the front yard of the Werner house. It is an Army garrison flag, the one they draped over Paul Werner's coffin at his military funeral in Arlington Cemetery. Now Jean Werner must work, applying her academic theories to the practical economies of earning money. Her plans for law school have been compromised.

"The momentum is there," she said. "I know I can do it, I've done it before. But it's a matter of how I'm going to go about it. Each day now, I wonder: Will things happen to shift my goals?I don't want that to happen. I may go ahead with (the law school admissions exam) in January and see what happens."

"I know I'll keep going. Right now, though, I don't know what. Or where."