Josephine Fox began going to the Alexandria YMCA to swim 10 years ago when she needed a break from research on 16th-century drama.

Soon she was in the water almost every day, and now her work as a volunteer swim and exercise instructor for handicapped children and adults has touched the lives of thousands of Northern Virginians.

For her work in aquatics therapy and for the thousands of hours that she has volunteered at the Fairfax County YWCA pool and other facilities, Josephine Fox will be one of three honorees tomorrow night at a "Tribute to Volunteerism" dinner at the Mayflower Hotel, sponsored by Women in Community Service Inc., a national volunteer coalition of five women's groups.

"I have always been a volunteer," says Fox, who has lived in Great Falls for 30 years. She began directing classes at the YWCA pool in Fairfax in 1973 and now conducts therapy classes four days a week for victims of stroke and other diseases and for handicapped children.

"Years ago, there simply would have been no place for these people to go for help," says Fox. "But now the Fairfax YWCA has a spacious pool with a ramp that accommodates wheelchairs."

Fox doesn't remember when she learned to swim as a child in western New York. But she first got really interested in swimming while at the University of Buffalo. "I had skipped so many gym classes that it was possible that I wouldn't graduate," recalls Fox. "They told me I would have to do some sort of physical activity to make it up, so I decided that I would swim every day."

Fox held a variety of jobs in New York, from medical writer to bridal veil buyer at Macy's, while studying 17th-century literature at New York University. But it was much later, after moving to Virginia, that she began swimming again regularly.

During her visits to the Alexandria YMCA, she noticed quite a few handicapped children at the pool. "It was a pity because no one was teaching them, so in the early '70s I began some classes there," she says.

The classes mushroomed into almost a seven-day-a-week occupation, and later Fox added the job of coach for mentally retarded children for the Special Olympics.

She taught in Alexandria until 1978, when her husband Derek, who had been an art editor at U.S. News and World Report for 39 years, became ill. After he died in 1979, she decided to limit her classes to the Fairfax YWCA, but she has continued coaching for the Special Olympics.

She's aware that full-time volunteers like herself are becoming scarce since many families now need two incomes to survive. "I have to recruit volunteers quite often," she says, "and it's getting harder and harder. But they are so important."

Fox doesn't like to talk about her age. "I'm a senior citizen -- but I don't like to give my age because I think it interferes with my work."

As for her award, she says she's very excited about it, "but there's no reward in the world that's more thrilling to me than seeing a handicapped person make some improvement through the water therapy classes."

The other two honorees at the dinner tomorrow are Gordon Barnes, WDVM-TV meteorologist, who is being recognized for his work with needy children, and Emmaus Services for the Aging, a Washington program which provides outreach services to the elderly.