Yesterday morning, while hundreds of Washingtonians were searching for ways to help her, Dorothy Frye took the bus downtown to pay off her overdue phone bill.

Yesterday afternoon, while concerned people all over town delivered food and checks and all manner of help to her, Dorothy Frye took the bus from her Northeast apartment to visit her husband at Washington Hospital Center.

There, Robert Frye sat in bed, elated beyond words, bewildered by the rush of attention and care.

After decades of struggling for self-sufficiency, the Fryes, both of whom are retarded and grew up at the city's Forest Haven institution for the mentally handicapped, had run into a barrage of bad fortune.

As detailed in The Washington Post yesterday, Robert Frye, in the hospital for more than two months, has lost his income from his job as a tool attendant. Burglars stole the couple's rent money and Christmas presents last weekend. And unpaid bills -- for rent, telephone and medical charges -- have been stacking up.

On New Year's Eve, however, the Fryes' fortunes changed dramatically. More than 400 people called The Post to volunteer to send money, food or other gifts. Dozens more called the hospital, the Fryes' city caseworker and Shirley Morgan, the couple's friend and caretaker.

"These people are trying to make it on their own, and now with them having a hard time, it's up to us people instead of the government to help them," said a Maryland man, who added, "My name isn't important. I just wanted to help."

Volunteers showed up at the hospital and at The Post with checks and other donations. People offered to set up credit accounts for the couple at a supermarket and with the telephone company. A seniors club in Rockville decided to take up a collection.

The D.C. Association for Retarded Citizens assigned two caseworkers yesterday to help with the couple's finances and to get Dorothy Frye a job, training and aid in finding an apartment closer to Morgan's Maryland home.

"We're also providing a volunteer to work with them long-term and we're arranging transportation for Dorothy to and from the hospital so she can visit Robert," said Vince Gray, executive director of the association.

Gray, who has known Robert Frye for many years, said Frye is a "fiercely independent man who will be back to work if he is the slightest bit able."

At least nine persons offered to give Robert Frye a television set because he cannot afford the $3.50 a day the hospital charges to rent one. The hospital declined those offers, fearing that the set might be stolen. Instead, the hospital encouraged donors to give clothing.

The hospital admitting office staff, an ordinarily hardened bunch, collected $70 for Frye. A local waste disposal company sent over pajamas, slippers and a robe.

The Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. decided to cancel the charges on the local part of the Frye's overdue bill, and the company switched the couple's account to a less expensive service, according to C&P consumer affairs executive Joe Flowers.

"I just can't stand to see people treated like this," said Jay Nedry of Arlington, who offered to have his band, the Road Ducks, play a benefit concert for the Fryes. Nedry said he planned to contribute $100 to the couple.

Nancy Fiedelman, Robert Frye's social worker at the hospital, said Frye was making progress in physical therapy and could walk despite occasional severe seizures from his neurological disorder.

She said the hospital was working to clear up any problems with the Fryes' medical coverage.

Morgan, the friend who has stayed in touch with the Fryes several times a day for more than 20 years, was ecstatic at the public response to the couple's plight. "I keep saying, 'Hallelujah,' " she said. "I am so happy. People are so wonderful."

Dorothy Frye couldn't believe it. "Everybody started calling me today," she said. "They really did. Seven-thirty in the morning, they called me."

Yesterday afternoon, Robert Frye stared for a very long time at the photograph that appeared in the newspaper.

"That's Dee," he said, pointing to his wife's picture. "That's really good. All of this is really good."

Staff photographer Joel Richardson contributed to this report.