This time of year, Harry Kelley's Ocean City always has a certain lonesome quality.

The 300,000 vacationers who stream into the seaside strip on a summer's day are home with cabin fever. The crab houses and the trinket shops are deserted. The Atlantic is cold and frothy and forbidding.

Today, however, the town has an emptiness that won't go away with the passing of winter. At City Hall where the flags fly at half staff, at the Sportsman's Lounge, where there's an empty chair at the gin rummy table, at the English Diner, at the fire department and at Kelley's other home-town haunts, Ocean City's year-round people are mourning. Kelley, 66, their longtime mayor and flamboyant promotional man, died suddenly of a heart attack yesterday while vacationing in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"We always thought he was larger than life and indestructible," said Anne FaunLeroy, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce. "Sometimes he was a fussbudget, but people thought kindly of him and respected him."

At the Sportsman's Lounge, where Kelley stopped daily to play gin rummy, regulars also preferred to talk about the past with Kelley rather than the future without him.

Owner Mike Taylor and Archie Elliott, who learned the game from Kelley, played a hand and tried not to look at the empty captain's chair -- Kelley's -- stationed beside them.

Over the bar was a photograph of Kelley, beaming, in his famous flame-red suit, his favorite outfit for official gatherings.

Last night, in a spirit of protectiveness, Elliott and the others removed the picture of Kelley kissing actress Sissy Spacek when they heard television camera crews were coming.

"This is the mayor's other office," said bartender Peter Chromik, "and I'm his other secretary."

"He was a down-to-earth fella," said Elliott, "but he had his mischievous side. Gin is a game of concentration and he'd break your concentration deliberately by talking nonstop.

"He was one of a kind," Elliott said, looking at Kelley's chair. "And we won't see another one like him again."

While the town's change to a city-manager government four years ago had divested Kelley of much of the power he had enjoyed as mayor since 1970, he remained Ocean City's leading figure and spokesman.

"I guess there'll be little change in the actual mechanics of the government," said Granville Trimble, the City Council president who is interim mayor until a special election can be held.

"Everybody on the council felt the same way the mayor did about development and no gambling and other issues.

"What we've lost is our greatest booster and our spokesman in Annapolis. That man had a dynamic personality and he loved Ocean City."

Kelley looked the part of a character, strolling up and down the boardwalk, passing out miniature keys to the city to everyone he met.

Until his health began to decline last summer, he was a robust man with an ample waistline who liked to speak of himself as "the old walrus." He had a gravel voice, a wide grin, a casual manner and a memorable habit of dress.

His red suit or his favorite crazy-quilt slacks sometimes embarrassed his coworkers, but never him.

He already had stressed his unwillingness to don a tuxedo for a Feb. 23 ball honoring him and the council, an event that will now serve instead as a memorial.

His secretary, Ruth Miller, recalled, "Last week, I mentioned the tuxedo to him. And he said, 'Ruth, I told you I'm not wearing a tuxedo and if you ask me again, I'm wearing a bathing suit.' "

No one doubted that he would make good on his threat. For it was Kelley's leadership style, as much as his personal style, that earned him his flamboyant reputation.

For all his blustery image, said Miller, Kelley was a sentimental man.

The only time she ever saw him cry, she said, was in 1983 when City Hall workers threw a surprise party for his 65th birthday, the first birthday celebration, it was said, he had ever had.

Yet Miller recalled, "There were a lot of things we did not see eye-to-eye on. We disagreed on political people a lot. I would go in to make another point and he'd go deaf on me. He'd go right out the door as if I wasn't even talking to him."

Today his friends and coworkers told and retold and chuckled over the Harry Kelley legends.

There was the time he defied the Army Corps of Engineers and drove back the stormy Atlantic with bulldozers to spread new sand on the beaches.

And then there was the time he hoarded black-market gasoline during the shortage of 1979 and resold it at town-subsidized rates so the tourists would not stay away.

And the time he campaigned against obscene T-shirts and topless bathing, all of which brought plenty of media attention to his town.

But the people who knew Harry Kelley best recalled today other, more private, stories that reveal a less-publicized side of the mayor.

In Kelley's second-floor office at City Hall, secretaries Miller and Doris Bransby juggled condolence calls, including one from the White House, and remembered little things.

They sat surrounded by Kelley's mementos -- plaques, photographs, caricatures and handcrafts given him by schoolchildren and senior citizens' groups -- that will be given to Kelley's three grandchildren.

"Occasionally, maybe three or four times since November, somebody would wander up here to see the mayor and tell him they were out of a job or they needed milk," said Bransby.

"I would sit right here and watch him reach into his pocket and pull out a $20 bill and never think to question if they were legitimate. He never told anybody about things like that."

Last week, Miller said, Kelley paid for a small band to entertain residents at a Berlin nursing home and at another in Salisbury, where his invalid wife, Constance, has lived for many years.

Another sign of the thoughtful Harry Kelley, said Miller, is the list of pallbearers he drew up last summer. Along with the prominent businessmen and political leaders is Venson Purnell, a janitor at City Hall.