Virginia state Sen. Edward Eugene Willey, the gaunt, white-haired patriarch who dictated many of the Virginia Senate's decisions, died today at the Medical College of Virginia Hospital. He was 76.

Sen. Willey, a member of the General Assembly since 1952 and its senior member, suffered a stroke June 16 in Virginia Beach, where he was inspecting state projects. He had been recovering from that stroke at his Richmond home when he suffered heart failure July 11 and was returned to the hospital.

The Democratic lawmaker was to the Virginia legislature what the late Adm. Hyman Rickover was to the Navy: curmudgeonly, irascible, contemptuous, biased and powerful.

Although he had been in poor health for years, Sen. Willey never considered retiring from the legislature. "It's his life," his wife Twyla said this year. "He's been down there so long, I don't know what he's going to do when he can't have it anymore."

Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, a former legislator, spoke for many this year when he described Sen. Willey as "the mentor -- and tormentor -- of us all."

From his front row, center-aisle seat in the Senate chamber, the tall, pallid, white-haired Sen. Willey, in a frail, high voice, urged, cajoled and sometimes threatened his colleagues "to reason together."

To friends and supporters, he was the epitome of the Southern gentleman, courteous and thoughtful.

To those who challenged him, he could be brutal. He ridiculed them, or launched a fearsome stare in their direction. If their rhetoric bored him, he turned his back, put his feet up on the desk behind him and talked about baseball or other unrelated matters.

He derived his power from the two positions he held -- chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, where he often single-handedly decided how the state's money was to be spent, and Senate president pro tempore, the result of his seniority.

It did not hurt that he was constantly at the State Capitol, often advising governors and making decisions while the General Assembly was in recess. Until he suffered a heart attack while presiding over a Finance Committee meeting in 1982, he had missed only a few days in 30 years of legislative sessions.

In his 34 years in the Senate, Sen. Willey, a retired druggist, did not neglect Richmond, demanding that good roads, most of the state's bureaucracy and its best-paid employes be placed there. He could be envious of the state's other regions, especially the Washington suburbs.

He long resisted state funding for the Metro transit system and other projects supported by Northern Virginians. "Those people think they're the only ones with problems," he said. "They talk about spending all that tax money down here, but the only reason they're so rich is that half of them are at the public trough."

While Northern Virginians eventually won him over, most whom he threatened were not so lucky. "He usually delivers on his threats," said Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Richmond, who called Sen. Willey an advocate of "the Vince Lombardi school of tact."

With Sen. Willey's death, Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton) will take over the Finance Committee by reason of seniority, but it is unlikely that he or any of the state's 38 other senators soon will match the power of Sen. Willey.

In 1980, Sen. Willey bluntly told Republican Gov. John N. Dalton that his proposal to raise the wholesale gasoline tax had no chance of passage. Dalton quickly backed down.

Although his health was failing, the senator remained active and true to his conservative principles. Just before his latest illness he was trying to derail Baliles' proposal to issue state bonds to build new highways.

There was no finesse to Sen. Willey. "I don't talk about members behind their backs," he said. "I say it to their face."

Even though he expressed little regard for Charles S. Robb's performance as lieutenant governor, calling him "a slow learner," Sen. Willey was an early supporter of Robb's gubernatorial campaign.

Sen. Willey's decision was made easier because the Republican nominee was state Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman, who as a senator in the mid-1970s had the temerity to question one of Sen. Willey's bills on the Senate floor.

"I'm not going to answer any more of your damn fool questions," said Sen. Willey, sitting down.

A few minutes later, he pinned the younger Coleman up against the wall in the Senate chamber and said: "I've just started a new . . . list, and you're number one on it."

Although he remained a Democrat, since the 1960s Sen. Willey consistently voted for Republican candidates for president; supported Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. when he switched from Democrat to Independent; was an enthusiastic backer of Republican Sen. John W. Warner, and, until Robb came along, often voted for GOP governors.

For much of his first 20 years in the Senate, Sen. Willey was a go-along back-bencher in the Byrd organization, whose conservative policies dominated Virginia government for half a century.

His ascent was delayed when he broke with the Byrd organization in 1959 over its attempt to close Virginia's public schools rather than desegregate them.

A large turnover of senators in 1972 propelled him into a leadership position. Suddenly he was president pro tempore and chairman of two powerful committees, Rules and Finance.

That power was short-lived. He was stripped of the Rules Committee chairmanship in a 1975 coup by moderates, led by Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax). Four years later, Andrews ousted Brault as majority leader and Sen. Willey's power was restored.

Among those who helped restore Sen. Willey to power in 1979 was Wilder, the only black in the Senate. He was said to have acted on practical rather than philosophical grounds, also helping the senator secure the endorsement of the black Crusade for Voters despite Sen. Willey's history of making derogatory racial and sexual remarks.

Sen. Willey once described Richmond's first black mayor, Henry Marsh, as "pretty smart for a black man," and he said of one of the rare people who challenged him for office, "Nobody but niggers and rednecks supports him." During this year's session, he denounced a reporter as "that little Jew boy," a remark for which he later apologized.

Sen. Willey was born near Winchester, Va., on April 17, 1910. He graduated from the public schools and went directly from high school to the School of Pharmacy at the Medical College of Virginia, where he graduated at the age of 20.

In addition to his wife, the former Twyla Sutton Layton, he is survived by a daughter, Twyla Gunter, and a son, Edward, both of Richmond.