On a rainy Friday night in November, Daniel Dunham was home watching "Dallas" when his girlfriend's father, looking shaken, appeared at his door with an ice cooler and a big cardboard carton.

The man was John D. Callan, the deputy commissioner of Baltimore's Neighborhood Progress Administration, regarded as an able and honest administrator by many of his colleagues. But Callan had startling news, Dunham recalled last week in an interview. The police were on their way to his house with a search warrant, and he wanted Dunham to keep the cooler and the carton.

The box and the ice chest, which Dunham said he accepted reluctantly, remained in a bedroom closet for a month, until an anonymous tip brought police to Dunham's doorstep.

Inside the containers, prosecutors found canceled checks and other financial records that corroborated evidence used to indict Callan on charges that he systematically embezzled city funds for five years. Callan, 66, in a court hearing last Monday, pleaded guilty to 32 counts of theft and forgery that prosecutors said brought him $1.1 million in city funds -- the largest such theft in Baltimore's history.

His trail of forgery and theft as a top aide in the Neighborhood Progress Administration, one of Baltimore's largest agencies, has eroded public confidence in the city government and prompted new city safeguards against fraud.

But the impact may have been even greater on Callan's stunned friends and associates, who wonder aloud about the connection between the John Callan described in court proceedings and the disciplined, hard-working man they knew.

During an 11-month investigation, said assistant state's attorney David Palmer in an interview, "We interviewed over 100 people and not one had anything bad to say about John Callan." Palmer added, "He just quietly led another life."

Callan's attorney, Robert E. Cahill Sr., would not allow his client to be interviewed for this article. He said Callan has "evidenced depression and remorse" since December, when the investigation into his dealings intensified and he was removed from his job. He has refused to talk to the press about the case and has avoided photographers throughout the investigation, and his friends said he has become distraught.

"He's half the person he used to be," said Callan's friend John Coyle, owner of a string of Baltimore bakeries.

Callan's psychiatrist testified at last week's court hearing that Callan took a drug overdose Dec. 18, shortly after the containers were picked up by police at Dunham's home, and was hospitalized for 10 days.

Prosecutors came to call Callan "the Great Expediter," the man who could cut through red tape at City Hall and get things done. He was known for launching housing renovation projects on short notice -- hiring contractors himself, ordering equipment, getting contracts approved quickly. And he was also an attorney, a master plumber and, friends said, a good auto mechanic. He enjoyed collecting and restoring classic cars, including a 1959 Corvette.

"He's the most able person I've ever met in my life," said Coyle. "He's a very serious person . . . . He had complete control of himself."

Coyle said he was puzzled by Callan's admission of guilt. "I don't know" why he would steal, he said simply.

Callan, the son of a Baltimore plumber, spent much of his early career at the Baltimore Housing Authority. He earned a law degree in the mid-1950s and during the 1960s was manager of Armistead Gardens, a large Baltimore apartment complex. A spokesman for the Neighborhood Progress Administration said Callan worked as a private attorney from 1969 to 1974, when he was hired by the agency as an administrator. Callan had worked his way to the post of deputy commissioner by the time the investigation of him began.

Callan was no high-rolling spendthrift. He is, say those who know him, an intensely private man accustomed to keeping a low profile. He lived well but not lavishly, chosing instead to save and invest much of the money that he diverted from city accounts.

"He didn't flaunt the money by any means," said Detective John Poliks, who investigated the case.

Court records show that Callan and his wife Julia own four homes: a condominum and a town house in Ocean City, Md., a sprawling new house they were building on a five-acre site north of Baltimore, and their ranch-style house in Towson.

In addition to buying or maintaining three of those properties, Callan used city funds to pay bills at a bakery he owns in Ocean City, to invest in an apartment complex and a hotel venture, and to buy two Baltimore warehouses, one of which he leased to the city for $26,749, nearly twice the market rate, according to the statement of facts presented by Palmer at Callan's hearing Monday.

Kathy Bell, who has managed the Shoregood Bakery in Ocean City for Callan since he purchased it five years ago, said he was prudent with money, often making repairs and doing other work at the bakery himself.

"He's not the kind of person who spends money just to spend money," she said. "He'd get down and scrub floors if that's what needed to be done . . . . He was not above that."

Neighborhood Progress Administration chief Marion Pines, who hired Callan in 1974 and promoted him as she moved up through the ranks in city government, told prosecutors that she and other officials knew that Callan was wealthy, according to the statement of facts. But, she said, they assumed that he was supplementing his $47,500 salary by doing law and plumbing work on the side.

Pines, who was anxious to put the case behind her, refused to comment on the case last week. Paul Schurick, a spokesman for the agency, said, "He was looked at as a very trustworthy employe . . . someone who was a doer, who could get things done."

Ironically, Daniel Dunham, the man Callan went to the night his life began to unravel, was one of the few who said that he had no trust in Callan. Dunham, 31, who has known the Callan family since childhood, was aware of something that city officials said they did not know: that Callan was in legal trouble once before.

In 1971, Callan agreed to an out-of-court settlement with Armistead Homes Corp., the Baltimore housing complex he had managed for more than a decade, according to records in Baltimore County Circuit Court. The Armistead board had sued Callan for misappropriation of funds and property.

"I didn't trust him from then on in," said Dunham, who is no longer dating Callan's daughter. "Whatever he wanted he always got. He wanted a place in Ocean City -- boom -- he got that; he wanted a bakery -- boom -- he got that . . . . Whatever John Callan wanted, John Callan usually got."

Dunham said he is angry that Callan involved him in his problems. "I hope they throw him in jail," he said.

Callan's undoing began when a city purchasing officer went to the state's attorney's office with his suspicions that Callan had used city funds to buy a furnace for the new house he was building.

According to the statement of facts from Monday's hearing, the year after he was hired by the city, Callan opened an unauthorized bank account in the name of the Mayor's Office of Manpower Resources, a precursor agency to the Neighborhood Progress Administration. Bank records showed that from June 1979 to October 1984, Callan deposited $1,117,977 in the account, which he then used for his own expenses.

Callan admitted guilt in four forgery and theft schemes that were laid out in detail by the statement of facts. In one, the most lucrative, he intercepted and banked five unanticipated insurance refund checks totaling $880,000.

In another, he ordered items for city projects, such as the furnace, and kept them. He secretly purchased the warehouse, and he then arranged to have the city lease it at an inflated price.

Finally, Callan hired contractors for city projects, paid them out of his own funds, then submitted forged and inflated bids for the work. He intercepted the checks that were then issued by the city, forged the contractors' endorsements and deposited the money in his unauthorized city account.

The case set off a flurry of editorials and public condemnations of the city's lax contracting and purchasing procedures. Following the revelations about Callan, the city has tightened purchasing and procurement policies. It now requires that any payments to the city go directly to "the mayor and city council," and it set up a committee to look into loopholes in the system. A special whistle blowers hot line has been set up.

Last Wednesday, two days after the guilty plea in which he agreed to pay to the city $1.2 million in restitution, Callan turned over nearly $600,000. Palmer, who would not comment on Callan's activities beyond what was presented in court, has asked that Callan be given an unspecified jail term when he is sentenced next month.

"John Callan is an enigma," said Palmer. "He's intelligent, hard-working, well liked and a family man, and on Sept. 30 he pleaded guilty to stealing more than a million dollars from Baltimore City."