When you walk in the door of Fairfax County's Groveton Elementary School you see a pair of live doves nuzzling each other in a cage.

Following the path of tiger paws down the hall, you pass a cafeteria where gray-haired men and women who sat in wooden desks learning their ABCs 60 years ago are eating pizza with fifth-graders.

And inside the office across the hall, you find the man recently named Virginia's first "National Distinguished Principal," Bill Zepka, surrounded by a five-foot-tall stuffed panda and scores of other souvenirs pupils have brought their principal from ventures around the world and Fairfax County.

"This is not just a place for discipline," says Zepka, 53, who laughs when he says people often think he is in the military because of his haircut: a half-inch of brown fuzz mowed flat across the top. "A lot of these kids come from single-parent homes. They can use an extra friend."

That statement sums up how he runs his school and the reason that he is a standout in his profession. As the now-fed fifth-graders file past his door en route to math or maybe music, many stick their head in and flash Zepka a smile and a "thumbs up" sign.

He greets every face, Chris, Danny, Beverly. . . , by name. Said Zepka, "It's very important that I know all their names," all 640 pupils, kindergarten through sixth grade. "I have to take the picture book home every night."

When he was memorizing names for the past 17 years as principal, giving encouraging hugs to children in the hallways and dreaming up one maverick program after another, Zepka did not think he would end up in the White House, but he will be there Oct. 12.

On that day the U.S. Department of Education, the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the Tandy Corp. will honor Zepka and principals chosen from other states with the first of what is planned to be the annual "National Distinguished Principals" awards. A panel of retired principals selected the winners from nominees who had shaped "children's future in the classroom and in life" with quality education and character, and who had involved the community in the school.

In Fairfax County, Zepka started a senior citizens nutritional program for the low-income elderly, a before-and-after-school day care program for working mothers and the English as a Second Language (ESL) program for foreign-born youngsters.

He piloted the county's first elementary physical education program and began one of the first public school programs for autistic children on the East Coast.

Ruth Marlowe, 64, is a senior citizen who comes to Groveton daily for a federally subsidized hot lunch. On Zepka's suggestion, twice a month the elderly rise to music at their own lunch hour dance. Marlowe says that when she is around the energy of the young students and Zepka, she cannot help but feel like dancing. "You would never know we were old when we start polka-ing," she says.

Another senior citizen, Louis Azzarano, 73, who speaks fluent Spanish and Italian, volunteers in the ESL program.

"He's a great help teaching the kids survival English, some of the every day words that the books leave out," says ESL instructor Joanne Walker. She said having an older person in the classroom was an added benefit to the foreign students because most had left their grandparents in their native countries.

"He Zepka has made Groveton the focal point of the community. That corner of Fairfax the Mount Vernon area south of Alexandria is one of the most diverse, economically and ethnically, in Fairfax." said Doris Torrice, the area school superintendent. "He has turned it into a model unit."

Zepka said he is always aware that the racial and ethnic mix of students -- 53 percent white, 26 percent black, 15 percent Asian and 6 percent Hispanic -- along with the scale of affluence ranging from wealthy to low-income, "could be explosive."

On Monday mornings he scrambles to meet the school buses as they pull in so "we can settle the weekend fights and get things going smoothly."

"I told him Zepka I got in a fight," said sixth-grader David Kidd. "He told me he was proud of me for being so honest."

"He's the best," says fifth-grader Becky Layman. "I was talking back to my teacher and he told me to straighten up. But he's not mean. He's like a friend."

The teachers think so, too. "His door is always open to our new ideas or to any problem we might have in our personal life," said Julie Kapral, who has taught at Groveton for 16 years. "I wouldn't want to teach anywhere else."

"It's all the extras he does" that made second-grade teacher Myra Shipley start the nomination process that led to Zepka's award. She said, "We enjoyed working with him so much that it was no problem getting 50 people to write letters of recommendation."

By "extras" Shipley says she means the daily newsletter Zepka types for the staff at 5:30 a.m., the spring bus trip to Florida he arranges for the pupils and "his bit-of-a-ham nature."

Last Halloween she said he came flapping down the hall dressed as a giant bumblebee and once, at a pupil talent show, he appeared with a long wig and a ukulele playing Tiny Tim's "Tip Toe Through the Tulips."

So far, Zepka has revealed no such plans for the White House reception. "I am just going to accept the award on behalf of my whole school," he says. "That is, if I'm not so nervous I forget."