Folks in their Virginia Beach neighborhood call them the Hero Boys -- a tall 17-year-old studying to be a chef and his 20 year-old cousin, a laborer on an asphalt crew.

Yesterday, President Reagan called Wade Cornick and his cousin Darryl Gregory heroes too, and personally awarded them the 1975 Young American Medal for Bravery for their efforts in rescuing a woman whose clothes had caught on fire in March 1975.

After the Rose Garden ceremony, in which nine young people won awards for valor and service, Cornick and Gregory looked a little shocked.

They knew ahead of time they'd be getting a gold-plated, quarter-sized medal. They knew there'd be a Ronald Reagan tie pin and a framed certificate of achievement. What they didn't expect, and what surprised them even more than a night at the Old Town Holiday Inn, was the peck on the cheek they got from first lady Nancy Reagan.

"Wow, she kissed me," said Cornick, spiffy in brown pinstripes, a cream shirt and brown tie.

"I sure wasn't expecting that," said Gregory, quite smart himself in blue pinstripes, a white shirt and red tie.

The awards program was set up by Congress in 1950 to honor citizens 18 and under "judged to have exhibited exceptional courage or to have engaged in outstanding acts of public service." The Justice Department administers the program, receiving nominations from state governors and then selecting winners. Yesterday's ceremony, attended by FBI director William H. Webster, Attorney General William French Smith and President and Mrs. Reagan, was the first since the ceremonies were discontinued during the Carter presidency.

Tanned and smiling, Reagan presented the awards to each of the young winners and then declared, "I think all of us should go away inspired. There's nothing wrong with our country if we have young people doing things like this."

Among the winners for bravery was a 13-year-old from Eau Claire, Wis., who crawled across thin ice to save a friend who had fallen through into the freezing waters of the Eau Claire River; and a 21-year-old woman from West Bloomfield, Mich., who, in 1976, threw herself over three boys for whom she was babysitting as a tornado tore the house apart.

The big day for Cornick and Gregory was March 4, 1975. Walking to the bus stop before school, the boys heard screams from a nearby house. Running inside, they found a woman, her clothes in flames, crawling away from a burning couch. They carried Mrs. Isaiah Carr, 61, out to the porch and put out the flames that left her with second- and third-degree burns.

"I was scared," Gregory said yesterday. My cousin was scared. We were both scared. But we got her out."

In the happenstance world of heroism, where a hero is a hero just for a while and is usually then forgotten, Cornick had another chance a year later when he rescued his two younger brothers when his own house caught fire. "I've just been lucky, I guess," Cornick said.

Also honored yesterday was Jerome Dale, a 17-year-old from Baltimore. Early on a Saturday morning in October 1979, Dale was watching cartoons on television when he heard screams from a neighbor's house. Rushing into the smoke- and flame-engulfed house, Dale charged up to the third floor and found Sentia Lemmon, 2, and Great White, 4, in bed. He wrapped his coat around the children and carried them out of the house.

Once outside, he left them with neighbors and went to the back of the house to help neighbors hold a blanket to catch the children's mother, Vonderela Bond, as she jumped from a third-floor window.