Donald Reddick was a bit uneasy when he walked around Walter Johnson High School a few months before he became principal in 1966.

"Some students started following us. It made me uncomfortable. They were almost antagonistic," he recalled. When a group of teachers told him thre were "subversive elements" in the Bethesda school's population, Reddick didn't feel any better.

But when he retired last week after 15 years as principal, Reddick was hailed as a "student's principal." Tall, lean and liberal, he seemed to enjoy rebellious students and sometimes found in their ideas an inspiration for change.

The students loved him. He let them leave school during lunch time and dress as they pleased. During his tenure, the students, not the computer, began to make up schedules, and they chose their own courses and teachers. Walter Johnson earned a place at the far end of the liberal scale.

Teachers occasionally objected, and to this day other county principals sometimes explain defensively, "We're not like Walter Johnson, but . . ." as they adopt Reddick's innovations.

During his first year as principal, Reddick faced one of his first tests. An assistant principal decided to prevent students from leaving school for lunch, a rule that had been broken for years. He locked the big school gates after the students left, planning to suspend the truant teenagers when they returned. The students came back another way and by sunrise the next day the gates had been stolen.

The county put up new gates "but since then we've never closed them," said Reddick. Within a year, students could come and go as they pleased. The new principal extended lunch time, giving clubs a chance to meet, teachers time to meet students, and guest speakers an opportunity to visit.

"Of course kids slip through," said Reddick of the relaxed atmosphere he created. "They exist. They existed before. But we've provided an opportunity" for their development.

He said his school is not extreme, just a leap ahead of the others.

Take dress codes. Another Reddick assistant dragged a boy into the principal's office by the scruff of his hair-shrouded neck. "He had told the guy to get it cut," recalled Reddick. "But the guy said, 'If you're going to make me get my hair cut I'm going to call an attorney.'" That started the principal thinking about the importance of short hair to educational development, and soon the dress code was a thing of the past. In September, 1969, dress codes were abolished in all Montgomery County schools.

"Dr. Reddick has a philosophy of his own," said Jon Kimball, 19, who was graduated from Walter Johnson last year. "The school is very open, very relaxed. It was great for me and great for a lot of people."

Kimball is so fond of Reddick that he, his twin brother Louis, and friend Steve Gaffney have organized a reception for him in the school cafeteria next Tuesday, two weeks after Reddick officially retired. Teacher Fred Chippen will sing a song he wrote about the principal and Kimball says he hopes many alumni will attend.

Dina Doctor, 15 and entering her junior year, is another fan. "Most kids really like Dr. Reddick because of the freedoms," she said. "The majority of students use it and it helps us grow."

But what of those who don't use the freedoms constructively? Michael J. Lanahan is a social studies teacher who admires Reddick but has been known to disagree with him.

"A fairly good percentage -- 10 percent or more -- of the kids just love that situation and abuse it," he said. "From a teacher's point of view that's been very frustrating." Lanahan said "problems in behavior in the hallways, missing classes and a certain amount of vandalism are probably related to" Reddick's liberal policies. But Lanahan reckons most students have benefited.

Reddick understands the risks. In fall of 1969 some 10th graders came to him, telling him the school was "repressive" and they they would drop out unless changes were made. Together, Reddick and the teenagers developed an academic program in which students worked on their own, with little supervision. "They blew the whole year," admitted their principal. "I don't think any of them graduated.

"But their idea was a good one," he added. The next year it was formalized into "Project in Education" and is still part of Walter Johnson's program, available to any student who wants to take part. "The faculty tried to get rid of it, but now it's pretty much accepted," said Reddick.

While Reddick has sometimes alarmed teachers with his open approach, they have benefited from it too. He joined picket lines in a 1968 teachers' strike and afterwards formed the Faculty Association, giving teachers a voice in forming school policy. Said Lanahan: "It's really a rather unique and democratic approach to running a school. In other schools a principal can be very autocratic and make decisions without consulting the faculty."

Reddick helped parents develop their ideas too.Ben Neufeld was a member of the PTSA when his son went to Walter Johnson in the early 1970s. He recalls the time when the association was rewriting its list of projects in response to new financial restrictions imposed by the school board. "We came up with some things we thought would be a good way of making a case to the board," said Neufeld. "But Dr. Reddick said 'Wait a minute. You guys are going completely down the wrong path. You've got nothing about the ideas you've been talking about for years.' We decided he was right."

Ideas are important to Reddick, and it was because of them he decided to leave. After 15 years as principal he was worried that he didn't have enough of them. He wanted to slip out quietly -- "he doesn't like to hover," said Dina Docter.

But the avalanche of plaques and silver trays from students, parents and teachers has forced him to turn a bedroom of his Rockville home into a trophy room. Such appreciation, he says, has been the high point of his Walter Johnson years.

Reddick, who has taught education courses at George Washington University, wants to go back to teaching now. During his 28 years with the Montgomery County school system, he has taught briefly, and served as principal at Leland Junior High in Chevy Chase before going to Walter Johnson. He says he would jump at the chance to teach at George Washington again. He hasn't found a job but he confesses he hasn't been trying very hard. He's sure something will come up.

"I feel like a kid," said the 53-year-old Reddick, who was a kid's favorite principal. "What am I going to be when I grow up? I'm kind of excited about it."