Reading the paper while riding the subway to work the other day, I stumbled across an obscure reference to the retirement of one Phillip S. Hughes as the undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution. The news account was less than he deserved.

Hughes -- Sam Hughes, if you please, the diminutive derived from his middle name -- was one of the people who made possible my and your subway rides.

His career as a nonpartisan civil servant, after Navy service in World War II, went from the Veterans Administration to the old Budget Bureau and its successor, the Office of Management and Budget, and then to starchily honorable service during the post- Watergate period as a member of the Federal Elections Commission, and finally to the Smithsonian. In the latter post, by one account, he provided the glue that held the outfit together in the recent shift of secretaries from S. Dillon Ripley to Robert McC. Adams.

In his career his Metro role may be a footnote, but to Washingtonians it should be a highlight: Sam Hughes, as deputy director of the Budget Bureau, was the Nixon administration's point man in pushing successfully for congressional authorization for the subway system.

Yesterday I asked this newspaper's library -- no, contradicting legend, we don't call it a morgue -- for our file on Hughes, who lives in Chevy Chase. Out of the envelope tumbled clippings, the one on top dated June 12, 1969, and bearing my byline. It began:

"President Nixon has assigned 'a very high priority' to Washington's Metro rapid transit system, an administration official Hughes told Congress yesterday . . . .

"As a result of greater schedule dependability and reduced traffic congestion," he said, "rapid transit will have a significant effect in reducing . . . tardiness and early departure . . . ." With more than 60 miles of Metro in place, who's to argue? Hughes may not yet have arrived in Metro's pantheon of heroes, but he deserves a full-sized nitche.