Oscar Wolf whiles away the afternoons on his bench in the town square, an El Producto cigar clamped between his teeth.

He is Hagerstown's Winston Churchill lookalike, a stately 81-year-old with crisp diction and a no-nonsense air. Wolf sums up his home of 75 years in a single sentence.

"Not that much has changed around here," he said, nodding at the downtown traffic that moved haltingly up Washington Street, "except there's a little bit more of everything."

Around Hagerstown, the image-conscious are likely to say roughly the same thing -- but in more spirited terms and with a touch of resentment at the condescending ways of the rest of the world.

Outsiders, residents say, have long dismissed the western Maryland city of 34,000 as a blue-collar area still trailing in its recovery from the recession. Or else they view it as a prison town, the forbidding home of three state facilities. Or, the back country, because of its isolated location in the rolling Cumberland Valley.

"They think of us as some little hick town," said merchant Bill Clowser with a laugh. "My in-laws in Baltimore used to think Hagerstown was in the wilderness."

The truth is, boosters insist, Hagerstown is a pleasant city with a 1950s-style downtown that is making a comeback, with people who know each other and smile when they meet, and with low rents, clean streets and few major crimes.

Whatever the case, several recent events have brought the attention of state lawmakers, businesses and the media to Hagerstown, thereby increasing interest in the city and, to an extent, perpetuating the negative stereotypes.

For one, there was the case of the "missing mayor," Donald Frush, who suddenly went into seclusion last month without notifying city hall or his reelection campaign committee. It was later learned that Frush, 54, was a voluntary psychiatric patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He was discharged from the hospital Friday and, observers say, he may well win a second term in Tuesday's city elections.

There is also talk among state legislators and prison officials about possibly locating another large prison, a so-called "supermaximum" facility for 300 inmates, in Hagerstown.

And, most recently, Citicorp, the nation's largest bank holding company, offered to open a credit card center near Hagerstown in exchange for full banking privileges in Maryland by 1986.

The center could bring hundreds of jobs to an area that still has 10.7 percent unemployment. By contrast, the state average in January was 6.1 percent. No one pretends that Hagerstown has completely recovered from the loss of 1,000 jobs when Fairchild Industries, the aircraft manufacturer, pulled out in 1983.

Hagerstown residents hope Citicorp will come to their town and set up operations in the former Fairchild plant. But with the caution of people who have lived through their share of lean times, they prefer to wait until the center is a reality before they rejoice.

"It sure would be nice," said Jean Volcy, 23, who worked with the mentally retarded until budget cuts eliminated her job last June. "But it's not like I can sit down and wait for them to get here. I'm managing, but I've got to get a job."

Despite the significant events of late and the worries of persons such as Volcy, life in Hagerstown seems to proceed with the steady, self-involved, slow-to-change pace of any small-to-medium-sized town.

The only momentous event on the city calendar last week, for example, was a small-town milestone: the ground-breaking ceremony Friday for the town's first parking deck. The deck -- a five-level, $3 million structure that has been debated for two decades -- will end free parking in Hagerstown.

The deck, as well as the downtown revitalization that prompted it, have stirred some residents who dislike change.

"Sometimes, around here, people have the attitude, 'If it was good enough for my daddy, it's good enough for me,' " said Clowser. He is chairman of the city's commercial and industrial development commission and part-owner of a family shoe store that dates to 1912.

"We have a small-town atmosphere, a little slower-paced," he said. "People panic if they're in the fifth car back at the traffic light. They think they're in a traffic jam."

As the seat of Washington County since 1776, Hagerstown has always been a government center, drawing county and city workers and the attorneys' and doctors' offices that normally cluster in a county seat. In the 19th century, the confluence of numerous railways gave it the nickname, Hub City. Today, it is a self-contained area, not a bedroom community. Washington, for example, is 74 miles away; Baltimore, 69. The borders of rural Pennsylvania and West Virginia are a scant 10 miles distant.

Just outside the city limits are the three state prisons and Mack Trucks Inc., which manufactures transmissions and is the area's largest employer with 4,000 workers. Beyond are acres of pastureland, small creeks and fruit orchards and hilltops dotted with barns, silos and big farmhouses; the county happens to be one of Maryland's top fruit-growing and farming areas.

For the most part, its residents are industrial workers whose families, in typical small-town style, have lived in Hagerstown for generations.

Each spring, they pack the 7,000-seat municipal stadium to root for the Hagerstown Suns, the Class A baseball farm club of the Baltimore Orioles. In the fall, they are divided between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Redskins. They proudly call themselves home to the Maryland Symphony and, each June, to the Miss Maryland pageant.

A few years back, it seemed that Hagerstown might also fall into the small-city pattern of decaying downtowns. During the shopping mall explosion of the mid-1970s, storefronts became vacant and rundown, and shoppers and some stores were lured to the 100-store mall that opened just off I-70.

In the past 3 1/2 years, however, the development commission has spent $1.5 million in federal money and $5 million in private funds to revive downtown business.

So far, the campaign appears to have worked. Lee Potterfield, a spokesman for the development commission, said 50 projects involving renovations, expansions and new construction have been completed. Investments total more than $45 million.

"Downtown has turned around," Potterfield said.

Certain areas of the downtown do have a spruced-up, busy look. Turn-of-the-century buildings that had been condemned have been turned into dress and gift shops with fresh paint and refurbished facades. New sidewalks have been laid in the town square, at the juncture of West Washington and North Potomac streets. An ornate yellow-brick building that was once a Western Maryland Railroad depot houses the police department. The streets are busy, and traffic is often heavy.

But even the most ardent boosters realize that, until the unemployment problem is solved, Hagerstown will continue to fall short of complete prosperity.

On a recent afternoon, that other side of life in Hagerstown was illustrated by a scene outside St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Streams of people -- some elderly, some middle-aged, some holding young children by the hand -- stood and waited for their allotments of cheese, dried milk, butter and cornmeal. The church is a periodic distribution point for federal surpluses of food staples to low-income people.

Eva Templon, 42, was there for the first time, feeling a little embarrassed at accepting a "handout," but her practical nature had prevailed. She was laid off from her job at a cabinet company in November.

"My husband works," she said, "but we've got three boys and we need those two paychecks. This stuff is free, and I'd have to buy it all anyway, so I couldn't not come."