The Bill Pate portal to Appalachia is gone.

Or, more properly, the "Bill Pate Portal to Appalachia" sign is gone.

For nearly four years, westbound travelers on Interstate Rte. 70 passed under the sign affixed to a pedestrian overpass at the crest of South Mountain.

Pate, a native of Kentucky who moved to Maryland, was the acting director of the Maryland Department of Economic and Community Development when he died in 1979.

But his identity remained a mystery to most who traveled on the highway.

Besides, the sign was an affront to many residents of Washington County, where it was posted. Appalachia, they said, had a negative connotation and Pate wasn't even native to the region that some prefer to call the Great Cumberland Valley.

"I never heard of the guy until the sign went up," said John Frye, the county's former director of tax maps who lives on Elk Ridge, one small valley west of South Mountain. "To me, it was an insult to us."

Pate was credited with helping to establish the Appalachian Regional Commission, through which millions of federal dollars were funneled into hard-pressed mountain counties in several states.

Washington County, which contains both mountains and valleys, was among the recipients.

Through successive administrations, Pate was the Maryland governor's representative to the panel. He lived in Annapolis.

The commission, now targeted for dissolution by the Reagan Administration, is hanging on by a thread. But the Bill Pate sign is hanging no more.

Said State Sen. Victor Cushwa (D-Wash.): "We always felt, 'Who in the world knows Bill Pate?' The whole business community and everyone else resented the sign that said 'Appalachia.' It sounds like you're entering the land of log cabins and hound dogs and moonshine."

Protests won for Washington countians a sign saying "WELCOME TO Scenic Western Maryland," in white letters on green background in the median, to the left of the overhanging "Bill Pate Portal" sign, which remained.

"We begged every new highway administrator to change the sign, but they never did," Cushwa said. "Their excuse was the governor would never allow it."

Then, last fall, Hal Kassoff, the newest state highway administrator, was asked during a trip to Western Maryland to take action. Without notice, in late winter, the Bill Pate sign came down and a larger new "Welcome to Scenic Western Maryland" sign, with white letters on a brown background, went up.

The old sign is somewhere in the Hagerstown state highway maintenance shop, according to Ken Hoover, maintenance engineer for Washington County.

"The sign, quite frankly, looked pretty terrible," said Thomas Hicks, in charge of signs for the state highway administration. "We're really relocating it in a more suitable place, in a rest area where people can stop and understand better his contribution to Western Maryland."

So, "by the first of summer," according to Hicks, a suitable plaque with more biographical information will be located in the westbound rest area just east of the pedestrian overpass where it once hung.

But don't hold the state to that date.

"This is not the highest priority item we have," Hicks admitted.