When the telephone rang in Fairfax County School Superintendent William J. Burkholder's office not long ago, the caller was a parent with a problem.

Her son had been playing on the soccer field at his elementary school and had come down with a case of poison ivy. Could "Jack" Burkholder do something about it?

So Burkholder, who presides over 159 schools with nearly 125,000 students and manages a budget of nearly $500 million, phoned the school and had the poison ivy removed.

It was not unusual that a parent did not hesitate to dial the easy- going superintendent of the nation's 10th largest school system. And it was typical that Burkholder did not hand off the call to an aide, but took care of it himself.

"He will never turn somebody down when they're upset," said his secretary, Mary Lee Mull. In her 17 years working for him, she said, she has never seen him lose his temper.

Burkholder, 56, retires July 1 as superintendent after 29 years in Fairfax County. When he took the job in 1982, after having turned it down once before, his somewhat flamboyant predecessor, Linton Deck Jr., had just been fired.

Educators say Burkholder's calming touch eased a tense situation, and that the expertise he gained from two decades working his way up the school administration ladder helped ensure his success. He is universally described as someone you can disagree with and still come away from smiling.

Officials describe his impact not so much in terms of specific accomplishments but in terms of the sensitive leadership he brought to the system.

"If there's one person in this county who could be canonized a saint, it would be Jack Burkholder," said outgoing School Board member Carmin C. (Chuck) Caputo.

"A good man . . . a very straightforward, honest guy," said bus driver Patricia A. Farmer, cochairman of the bus drivers and school aides advisory council.

Burkholder said in an interview he has tried during his years as superintendent "to create an environment in which people can do their best."

The worst that was said of him at a roast Saturday night at the Robinson Secondary School was a joking description of his administrative technique by parent Marty Treadwell: "Fairfax County's own Pillsbury Doughboy . . . management by benign smile."

County Executive J. Hamilton Lambert joked that Burkholder always got the better of him in negotiations over the size of the school budget to be awarded by the county Board of Supervisors.

"If you're looking for a man of the highest integrity, forget it," Lambert said. "These guys will slip it to you."

Lambert imitated the way the balding Burkholder rubs his head "when he wants something."

"The guy has worn out the front of his head."

There were jokes at the roast over the way Burkholder handled a recent salary dispute with teachers, by giving them extra paid "snow days" at the end of the year instead of extra pay.

There were jokes over the major school boundary changes he proposed last year, which prompted hours of parental protests at public hearings.

The School Board eventually accepted most of them. Burkholder now says the positive aspect of those hearings was "that very, very few people want to change schools." He says it will be three or four years before major changes will be needed again.

There was a quip that Burkholder would return to the system next year as a bus driver, a reference to his job as a teen-aged school bus driver near his rural Bedford, Va., home, and to the furor over the $157,000 contract offered him by the School Board.

Burkholder had announced plans to retire but changed his mind when the School Board offered him $79,450 a year in salary and $77,800 in yearly payments to make up for benefits he would have lost by forgoing retirement at 55. It would have made him the nation's highest paid local school superintendent. Last September, amid a public protest over the size of the contract, he said he would stick with his original decision to retire.

Today, he says of that furor: "That's in the past. I have no bitterness about it at all. Things always work out for the best in the long run."

Burkholder's years in Fairfax County have seen the schools grow from a rural collection of buildings with 30,000 students to a respected system that will open Northern Virginia's first science and technology high school next fall.

He went to work as an elementary school teacher and was laid off at the end of his first year but rehired the following fall when a new school opened. He became an assistant principal at Mount Vernon High School in 1958, beginning a career as an administrator.

In 1964, he became assistant superintendent for personnel. He recalls the difficulty he had in those days of hiring teachers for Herndon High School. "It was like going to West Virginia" to teach there, he said.

Named deputy superintendent in 1977, he turned down the top job two years later, but he accepted it in 1982.

He always wanted to be a school administrator. "I'm not one of these people who say, 'Gee, I wish I could stay in the classroom,' " Burkholder said. He leaves two unfinished issues behind: building an incentive pay system for teachers, and improving minority student achievement. In both cases, the county has experiments under way, and Burkholder says it will take time before results are known. The reward of the job is that "you can make a contribution to the school system that's significant," he said.

He is looking forward to a little rest from a job that keeps him working 85 hours a week. He plans to spend a few weeks in Bedford, where his family and his wife's family still live, and then go to the beach. A travel fund established to honor him is paying for a trip to Europe.

"But I can tell you I won't be very happy doing nothing very long," he said. He would not say where, but, "I will continue to work."