Theodore Lyons is the first black in the Government Printing Office's 120-year history to hold the $33,000-a-year position of executive assistant and confidential policy advisor with a direct line to the agency's chief.

Although he is not a policy maker and works on assigned projects, Lyons is seen as a messenger of hope by many of GPO's minority workers, who have complained about what they say is discrimination at the nation's largest publishing house. They hope Lyons will use his position to improve their conditions.

Lawrence Sanders, chairman of a GPO equal Employment Opportunity monitoring committee, has met with Lyons and found him concerned about morale as well as practical production matters. Sanders said he believes there will be changes for the better in time, but that he hoped Lyons' appointment was not "an act of tokenism."

Public Printer Danford Sawyer Jr. says he and Lyons have "close personal, highly confidential, several times-a-day contact." The two are implementing a new management philosphy, the Quality Circle of Worklife, to include employes in company problem-solving and decision-making.

It may seem ironic to some that the appointment of Lyons, a newly coverted Republican who was in the middle of the Miami race riots campaigning for Ronald Reagan, is considered by many a sign of better things to come for blacks in a city that voted overwhelmingly against Reagan.

Lyons, a native of Florida's Dade County, abandoned President Carter and the Democratic cause in 1980 and jumped on the Republican bandwagon. He was disillusioned, he said, because "the answer to everything Jimmy Carter was concerned with was another program."

Lyons, a sociology graduate of predominantly black Florida A&M University, lives in Columbia, Md., with his wife Dorothy and three daughters. In Florida, he headed his own real estate firm for four years until 1979. A year later, he changed his party affiliation and ran unsuccessfully for the Florida State Senate. His resume lists a string of conservative affiliations such as the All-American Republican Council.

Growing up poor and black in Florida, he said, had made him sensitive to blacks' concerns about discrimination. He dismissed any notion that being a Republican would alter that.

Lyons, 33, said he understands the problems of minorities at GPO: "You can look at the makeup of top management and go down through the plant."

Lyons said he did that once, staying in the building until 2:30 a.m., meeting and talking with pressmen, offset strippers, bindery workers and composers.

"Most of the modern machines are run by the majority," Lyons said, referring to whites who comprise 46 percent of the workforce. "Most of the old linotype machines are run by the minority."

"I don't think we can say that, Ted," interjected Judith Morton, a recent Republican appointee and GPO's legislative liaison and director of public affairs, who joined Lyons in a recent interview.

"No matter who you are or where you're from you can rise in this country," Lyons quickly responded. "The bottom line is you gotta keep pushing forward. . . . It's not the color of your skin but how you play the game."