LITTLE ROCK, ARK. -- When Edward Kelly was named superintendent of public schools here in 1982, a civil rights group went to court in a failed attempt to block his appointment.

Since then, the local teachers union has called for Kelly's resignation, vandals have hurled rocks through his living room window, parents have shouted insults at him at community meetings, and a member of Congress declared he was "sharpening my ice pick" for the superintendent.

Now people in this southern capital are noting with irony that Kelly is leaving Little Rock not tied to a rail, but showered in praise for his winning personal style and stewardship of one of the nation's most embattled school districts.

Next month Kelly will take over as superintendent of the 38,000-student Prince William County school system, one of the largest in Virginia and one that in recent years also has known its share of turmoil.

The Prince William School Board 11 days ago unanimously hired Kelly at an annual salary of $82,000. Kelly, a 45-year-old Missouri native, will succeed Richard W. Johnson, who was fired by the board in December after a stormy seven-year tenure.

If board members were looking for a personality the opposite of Johnson's -- and they were, according to some members -- they seem to have found it in Kelly, a balding, soft-edged former teacher.

Kelly's tour in Little Rock, which remains a racial battleground 30 years after the historic confrontation in which federal troops were dispatched during the integration of Central High School, has been turbulent. But he has won broad acclaim for his public relations flair and his ability to thrive in an often hostile setting, according to state and city officials, business and union leaders and other observers of the 20,000-student school system.

In Prince William, where race has not been the all-consuming issue that it has been in Little Rock, school leaders say Kelly will have ready use for political skills. He will take command of a rapidly growing system on which streams of new suburbanites are placing ever-rising demands for academic quality and prestige.

"It's a school system that wants to get better," said Kelly, father of two boys and two girls, ranging from age 8 to 14. "There's a real interest in forging an identity in the community . . . . The schools are a logical place for that."

Kelly's arrival in Prince William will almost certainly be marked by comparisons with Johnson, who polarized the community and earned the sobriquet "King Richard" among friends and critics alike.

While the final stretch of Johnson's term was marked by a bitter split on the seven-member school board, largely over the superintendent's leadership, in Little Rock Kelly played a crucial role in unifying a board that was seriously divided before his arrival, according to past and present school board members.

And while Johnson seemed to chafe at criticism of all kinds -- sometimes snarling at parent activists, other times responding with withering condescension -- Kelly has often defused angry crowds with humor and patient explanations of unpopular policies, his supporters say.

"He has a very nice presence, dresses well, he's articulate," said Frank Martin, executive director of the Little Rock Classroom Teachers Association, the teachers union.

"He could talk the beard off a billy goat," said John R. Starr, a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat, who often blasted Kelly in print but recently wrote that "I am sorry to see him go."

On the other hand, Johnson was regarded as a master of detail, an administrator who reveled in charts and data and one who, at a time of staggering growth in Prince William, ensured that new schools were built under budget. Kelly professes little interest in the nuts and bolts of budgets and building construction, and says he will delegate much of this responsibility.

"I'm not a pencil-and-paper superintendent," said Kelly, noting his strength lies in orchestrating solutions by working with various people and groups.

In some ways, Kelly's arrival in Prince William will mirror when he came to Little Rock from the superintendency of the 8,000-student Harlem School District in suburban Rockford, Ill. In Little Rock, he replaced a superintendent with a penchant for stepping in one public relations bucket after another, and he went to work for a board that had a reputation for being contentious.

In other ways, however, his Little Rock experience will make Prince William seem serene.

"There was a certain intimidation {directed} against me when I came here," Kelly said. "I thought people were making judgments because they didn't know me."

Many in Little Rock were skeptical about Kelly, a white man coming from a northern school district. A group of black parents sought to block his appointment, charging that the school board had not given adequate consideration to black candidates.

The Little Rock Classroom Teachers Association also was wary, believing Kelly had a record in Illinois as a "union buster." In interviews last week, union officials said they no longer hold that view.

Finally, there was the battle over desegregation -- Little Rock's continuing obsession. On his first day as superintendent, Kelly said, he went directly from the airport to the federal courthouse.

Little Rock ensured itself a chapter in the history of civil rights in 1957. Its school board was under a federal court order to enroll nine black children at all-white Central High. Gov. Orval E. Faubus, bitterly opposed to desegregation, called out the National Guard to block the move. Eventually, President Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne Division to enforce the integration order.

In the end, federal force ensured the desegregation of Little Rock's schools. Years later, however, it seemed to many civil rights activists that they had won the battle but lost the war.

The schools were becoming predominately black as white families fled downtown for Little Rock's western suburbs, outside the school district's boundaries. The Little Rock school board decided the solution was to "consolidate" three area school systems. That initiative, which ended up in court, was just getting started when Kelly arrived. Eventually the federal courts blocked the consolidation, but allowed Little Rock to annex portions of its neighbors.

The controversy made Kelly one of the best-known officials in the city.

He rarely escaped the issue. At an appointment to get his teeth cleaned last week, his dentist wanted to talk about the annexation, Kelly said. When he and his wife enrolled their children in a Sunday school in North Little Rock, one of the areas to be annexed, it was quickly turned into an issue by reporters here.

Kelly gets credit from his school board for being "the lightning rod" on the race issue, allowing individual board members to escape the political heat, according to board members and other city officials.

He eventually won the support of civil rights leaders. "I believe he is a man of integrity, honesty and good will," said John Walker, a lawyer who has represented black parents in the annexation battles. "He will practice what he preaches."

Kelly's supporters give him credit for other accomplishments in addition to his diplomatic handling of the race issue. They include increasing the school day for junior high students from six periods to seven, insisting that athletics and other extracurricular activities be conducted during after-school hours, and overseeing a series of curricular reforms.

He also lobbied voters successfully this spring to support a school tax increase, Little Rock's first in several years. Prince William officials hope Kelly will have similar luck persuading voters there to support three multimillion-dollar bond issues for school construction on the ballot in the fall.

While virtually no one in Little Rock disputes Kelly's public relations polish, he does have his detractors.

Although they no longer consider him a union buster, officials of the teachers union said Kelly has been no booster, either.

"His priorities in terms of financial management often leave out personnel," said Catherine Wright Knight, president of the union.

Kelly can also be overzealous in advancing his ideas, according to some observers. Ruth Steele, a top official with the Arkansas Department of Education who used to work for Kelly, said she is an admirer of the superintendent, but that "Ed is not a person who waits very long between thinking of an idea and implementing it . . . . Sometimes that can be a problem."

Others note that Kelly is leaving Little Rock at a time when his political capital is rapidly dwindling. With annexation has come new board members; and this year, for the first time, Kelly has been faced with a string of sharply split votes on his proposals.

Kelly said he will move cautiously upon his arrival in Prince William. He said he plans no major shake-up of top administrators and principals, but added there will likely be gradual reshuffling.

Kelly said he is aware that one issue has long been a sensitive point among many Prince William parents: the comparison with the district's neighbor to the north, Fairfax County.

Although Prince William is an affluent district by the standards of Little Rock -- its per-pupil spending, at more than $5,000, is nearly twice what it is here -- some Prince William School Board members say many residents feel inferior to Fairfax, which has one of the wealthiest and most highly regarded school systems in the nation.

Kelly said he relishes the competition.

"If you can compare yourself favorably to Fairfax, you can compare yourself favorably with most school systems in the country," he said.