As Peggy Spear explains it, the public relations staff at The Catholic University of America used to be a pretty passive group. They felt their job was to react to reporters' phone calls, not elicit them.

But last year, a change of regimes came to the Northeast Washington campus -- a new associate vice president for university relations (Douglas Spangler) and a new director of public information (Spear). They had carte blanche to try to originate a little attention for C.U.

Well, Spangler and Spear have certainly rung the gong. Last month, they asked the chairmen of the history and politics departments to poll all their professors. The question: Who are the 10 worst villains in world history?

The results were mailed last week to media folks everywhere who are used to reading nothing more exciting in college press releases than great breakthroughs in lepidoptera.

Everybody from Caligula to Ivan the Terrible made C.U.'s Worst Ten list. Nero made it for his fiddling, Attila the Hun for his ruthlessness, Catherine de Medici for helping to start one of the worst religious wars in history Catholics vs. Calvinists in 16th Century France).

To no one's amazement, Josef Stalin, Adolph Hitler and Idi Amin made every ballot.The other two world-class devils were Abdul-Hamid II (ruler of Turkey's Ottoman Empire at a time when thousands died) and Mao Tse Tung (who saw to it that most of his political rivals were killed or exiled).

The chief surprises were the figures who weren't judged awful enough. Among them were Ayatollah Khomeini (it's evidently too soon to judge his true place, said Spear), Napoleon and Jack the Ripper.

The only also-ran who drew a special mention was former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. The C.U. professors awarded him a citation -- not for evil, but for making the dumbest move in history by signing the Munich pact with Hitler.

"You wouldn't believe the response we've gotten," said Spear. "We've been on radio stations from Los Angeles to Boston. Even the BBC called to ask about it."

Were you serious about all this?

"Oh, yes," Spear replied. "My boss [Spangler] was a history major, and he's a student of history. He always says that people who don't study their mistakes are condemned to repeat them."

Did any of the 20 professors who responded consider the poll a waste of time?

"No, I don't think so. Nobody spent very long on this. . . The acting chairman of the politics department (Steven Schlesinger) said it was a useful exercise because people continually need to evaluate their leaders."

For Our Heroes: I carry one of those pocket diaries. I pretend that I run it. In fact, it runs me. I look at it before the first slug of coffee, and after I lock the back door and turn off the porch light. As soon as anything is inscribed in the diary, it becomes must-do.

But I have a system for separating the truly important from the just-don't-want-to-forget. I write the big things in colored ink, and underscore them.

This week, I wrote "Heroes, Inc." in blue, and drew two blue lines under it.

Heroes, of course, is the fund that aids the families of Washington-area police officers and fire-fighters who die in the line of duty. It has been with us for 17 years now, helping widows and orphans meet college expenses and obtain counseling.

The need for donations has been with us for 17 years, too. But never before has the need been so great. Inflation has been especially tough on educational costs, which is where most Heroes money goes. Heroes estimates that five years from now the cost of a year at an average college will soar from $3,702 to $5,455.

That is large potatoes. But large, too, is the courage you need to look down the barrel of a gun or charge into a burning building when you know it might be the last thing you ever do. Ninety uniformed men and women have died in these ways, and similarly selfless ones, since 1964. Surely, there will be more. Just as surely, we must be ready to ease the burdens on their families.

The annual Heroes fund-rising effort shifts into high gear this week. Your help is urgently needed. It is one of the ways you can make a genuine difference to a deserving family. Please send your contributions to Heroes, Inc., P.O. Box 1860, Washington, D.C., 20013.