When Melville (buster) Carico frist came to Richmond to cover the Virginia legislature more than 20 years ago, he got his best information by prowling the halls of the Richmond Hotel around midnight. After the legislators had completed the official business of the day, they opened their doors for a nightly marathon of boozy conversation and seldom failed to include the skinny, saw-toothed kid from Roanoke.

The Richmond Hotel is gone -- replaced by a modernistic office building -- and the retirement of Carico this summer after 47 years with the Roanoke Times is the latest evidence that an era is coming to end.

Carico, with his red baseball cap, rumpled clothes and a voice like squeezed lemons, is viewed in this capital of the Confederacy as the "gentleman's gentleman" of the press -- a reporter whom politicians always would trust.

"(Carico) was the one who wold give us some credit and relate to the public that there is some credibility among politicians," House Speaker A. L. Philpott told guests at a breakfast "roast" of Carico, sponsored by the Virginia Retail Merchants Association this week. "For that we are eternally grateful."

Around him, hundreds of state politicos, ranging from precinct workers to the chief justice of the Virginia Supereme Court, cheered and waved baseball caps identical to the ones that have become Carico's trademark. (He says he likes them because they keep his thinning hair in place and don't fall off when he's jumping in and out of cars.)

Messages of acclaim poured in: from President Ronald Reagan, with whom Carico served filming documentaries in the Army Air Corps during World War II, and from Virginia Republicans Sen. John W. Warner and Rep. M. Caldwell Butler (6th District), who joked that Carico always was one to "deal kindly with Virginia politicians because they are a lesser species that cannot make it on their own."

Long considered the grand old man of the Richmond press corps, Carico, 64, grew up in the hilly country of the state's "Fightin' 9th" congressional district, where he earned pocket money delivering the Roanoke Times. At 17, after finishing high school, he went to work at the paper as a night clerk and a switchboard operator.

Two years later, in 1936, Carico was promoted to the newsroom, where he eventually assumed responsibility for reporting on party caucuses, campaign rallies and meetings that are the lifeblood of Virginia politics.

Along the way, Carico has met every major state politician and most minor ones, and has hit so many campaign trails he can barely count them. "I've traveled to places most other people haven't even heard of," Carico says.

Underlying his political reporting, Carico says, is a philosophy that would "probably shock journalism professors," but doubtless accounts for some of his popularity among Virginia politicians. He says he never quotes a politician directly or indirectly without specific permission.

"What's private is private and what's public is public," he says with the southwest Virginia twang that makes his voice unmistakable across a crowded meeting room. "If they say it to me in a public function, it's public. If it's just me going as a friend and talking, then it's private."

But for Carico, the real secret of success hs been the unflagging enthusiasm he has brought to his work in the cities and hamlets of Virginia during the past 47 years.

"I'd rather go to a campaign barbecue -- meet people, talk politics on a Saturday afternoon -- than play golf," he says.