PORTSMOUTH, VA., FEB. 3 -- As a teenager here in the mid-1950s, he often marched down High Street in city parades, playing his saxophone for the Churchland High School band. Today, some 35 years later, he finally got to lead the parade in a limousine.

W. Nathaniel Howell Jr., the former U.S. ambassador to Kuwait whose defiant refusal to close the U.S. Embassy inspired a nation, was welcomed home with an old-fashioned, unabashedly patriotic parade today by a flag-waving, cheering crowd of thousands. Wearing yellow patches with "Nat" spelled out in red, white and blue, former neighbors and classmates, nuns and retired military officers turned out to honor him.

"Everybody kept calling him the first American hero of the war, and the city just felt . . . we needed the first hometown parade for the first hero of this war," said Don Campbell, a local Chamber of Commerce official who helped coordinate the festivities.

Mayor Gloria O. Webb, another organizer, said the city admired and took pride in Howell's "in-your-face" stance. "He's a great guy," she said. "I'd have probably packed my bags and run. But he stayed till the bitter end."

The two-day tribute includes a breakfast with his high school classmates; a worship hour at Court Street Baptist Church, where his 75-year-old mother, Josephine Howell, still prays; and a public reception capped by a 470-pound, 32-square-foot cake decorated as an American flag. On Monday, he will address high school students across the city and deliver a keynote speech to the World Affairs Council of Greater Hampton Roads.

For Howell, who grew up in Portsmouth, graduated from Churchland in 1957 and received bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Virginia, all the attention is a little uncomfortable.

"It's overwhelming; it really is," he said in an interview, as his mother; his wife, Margie; and his 28-year-old son, Chip, looked on. "It's not what we're used to."

Although he has been compared to John Wayne for keeping the embassy open for 134 days with scant supplies amid the Iraqi occupation, Howell balked at the hero label and seemed almost embarrassed when youngsters asked for his autograph. A large man, he speaks thoughtfully, a bit dryly, but displays an equally dry wit.

"I did what I had to do," he said simply. Here in the heart of one of the nation's largest military complexes, people understand that.

As Howell's parade streamed by, parents hoisted children on their shoulders and pointed out a man they believe will go down in history.

"He's our hero," said Virginia Wiseman, 67, who carried a flag and a sign that read, "Thanks Mr. Ambassador. God Bless America!!"

City leaders presented Howell with a medal, a rug with the U.S. seal, and several books and plaques. They said they also plan to commission a painting of him and start a scholarship fund in his name.

"The funny thing is, his classmates didn't know it was him at first because they kept talking about 'Nathaniel,' " said Mary Denaro, who went to school with Howell. "And then it suddenly hit us: 'Whoa! It's Nat!' "

Fellow members of the Class of '57 swarmed around him and remembered the studious, good-humored teenager who was a member of the chess club, debate team, band and National Honor Society and was voted Most Intellectual.

"Nat is just like he was when we were in school, very unpretentious," said classmate Aurora Tisdale.

"He's really a big, lovable teddy bear," agreed Barbara Gardner Adams. "But you can't let that fool you. That great resolve will always get him through."

Since returning in December, Howell has spent his time answering a flood of mail and preparing to reoccupy a house in Arlington.

He's not yet ready to retire from the Foreign Service. "I've been in the harness too long to completely settle down," he said.

"He'll never slow down, take my word for it," piped in his mother. Was she especially proud today? "He's just my son," she said, but her beaming smile betrayed her.

Recalling his three years in Kuwait, Howell mentioned that before the Iraqi invasion Aug. 2, he had been working on a book about the history of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait. "Somebody might read it now," he deadpanned.