There are people in Washington who might be coolly interested but not overly excited if they were asked whether they wanted to meet the president. But if you asked if they wanted to meet Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, they'd jump and say, "Let's go."

While I have all the respect in the world for the president of the United States, I belong to the latter group. I had the opportunity to meet Marshall recently when the invitation arrived to attend a reception in his honor. For me, Marshall, 79 and the only black person ever to sit on the Supreme Court, is an icon.

But I also had made a date several weeks earlier to see a play the same night with a friend. Here was a conflict. To attend the Marshall affair might make my friend feel slighted and me feel guilty, and to attend the play with a friend might have made me miss my only opportunity in life to meet Marshall.

The solution: Do both. Unfortunately, my plans went awry.

I arrived at the National Archives at 7:10 for the reception and preview of the Channel 9 documentary on the bicentennial of the Constitution that aired here last night. I had to meet my friend at a quarter of 8. At first, Marshall was nowhere to be seen. I was watching the clock. When the tall, imposing man of ample girth walked in, it was 7:30.

People immediately flocked around him, shaking his hand, taking pictures with him and saying hello. Marshall is rather a mysterious figure. Indeed, part of the excitement at the prospect of meeting him is his reclusiveness. The documentary interview with columnist Carl Rowan was his first formal news interview in the 20 years since President Johnson named him to the court, and he rarely makes speeches or attends public social functions. Rowan's interview with the jurist already had made news because of Marshall's frank criticism of President Reagan's record in matters of racial justice. (Reagan, he said, ranked at "the bottom" of U.S. presidents.)

I felt like a hunter stalking big game as I stood at one side of the room with another awed admirer, glancing at Marshall -- and the clock. We talked about Marshall as a premier civil rights lawyer who helped pave the way for the 1954 decision that ended legal school segregation in the United States. To me, he is a renaissance man, a towering figure who by his scholarship and devotion to justice showed several generations of blacks how they must stand up and be counted and how the fight for justice demands struggle and eternal vigilance. We agreed that his influence spreads far beyond race; his opinions have championed the rights of "little people," whatever their color.

Someone shoved a chair near Marshall and he took a seat, while his wife stood nearby. (Although he has suffered numerous health problems over the years and spent several days in the hospital this summer with a blood clot in his foot, he told a reporter this week that he is now in good health.)

While I had only a few minutes left, I decided to use a couple of them to duck out into the hall to the bar while the crowd around Marshall thinned.

A voice kept saying, "Dorothy, you've gotta leave." Just as I was handed a drink and prepared to rush back into the room to elbow my way through the crowd and introduce myself to Marshall, I looked up to see him being whisked away by Rowan, who was guiding him to a waiting elevator to ride to the theater for the screening of the documentary.

Droves of people waited to get on a couple of elevators. By the time I reached the theater, checking my watch all the way, Channel 9 General Manager Ron Townsend was about to introduce the film. Marshall was seated about 100 rows down front.

I had lost the moment!

Although the other guests would have an opportunity to talk to Marshall at a buffet that followed the screening, I had to rush to the other theater before curtain time.

Well, it was nice to see my friend, but the play wasn't all that good.

And although I have never met Thurgood Marshall, and may never see him again, he's still my hero.