When Edward C. Merrill became president of Gallaudet College in 1969, he didn't know sign language even though the school he came to head is the nation's only liberal arts college for the deaf.

One of the first things Merrill did was to learn the language, Gerald Burstein, head of the college alumni association, recalled yesterday.

"When the word spread that Dr. Merrill intended to sign his own inauguration address, there were those of us who had serious misgivings about such good intentions," Burstein continued. "We were not sure there would be enough time in the day for that . . . , but he did well."

Yesterday, the college on Florida Avenue NE, which has grown to about 1,450 students, honored Merrill at a convocation to mark his retirement next fall at age 63. A long parade of speakers, including actress Nanette Fabray and Georgetown University President Timothy Healy, said Merrill has continued to do well.

With $52 million this year from the federal government and about $15 million more from private sources, Gallaudet not only operates college and graduate programs, but also a secondary school for 425 students and a model elementary school for the deaf with about 180 students.

Even though the college is 118 years old, most of its growth has come in the last two decades. But most of the talk yesterday was not of growth, but of Merrill's interest in deaf students.

Michael Baer, president of the student government, said Merrill not only keeps his office door open to students, but lives on campus and often invites students to his home. Baer said Merrill "walks his dog around the campus in the evening and joins us in our activities."

Until the early 1970s Gallaudet was the only college in the United States with special programs for the deaf. Now there are about 60 other programs on regular college campuses, said Donna Chitwood, director of public relations for Gallaudet.

The debate is sometimes sharp between advocates of special institutions for the deaf and those who favor "mainstreaming" them in regular schools. But Gallaudet still enrolls about half the nation's deaf college students.

Near the end of yesterday's ceremony, most of the 1,500 persons in the college field house stood and signed "I love you" to Merrill.

Merrill signed back, moving his hands like a jaw dropping open: "It's totally awesome."