RICHMOND, SEPT. 28 -- Albert Lee Philpott, speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates and a towering figure in the state's modern political history, died yesterday afternoon at his home in Bassett, Va., after a long battle with cancer. He was 72.

Philpott's passing came just three days after he announced that he would not seek reelection to the House seat he had held since 1958, a declaration that prompted an avalanche of tributes from all quarters of state politics and was widely recognized as the passing of an era.

The man who since 1980 was known simply as "Mr. Speaker" was a potent symbol of an earlier age -- when conservative rural Democrats of his ilk dominated state government, relying on a mastery of the legislative process to protect their interests and stymie changes not to their liking.

Yet Philpott's greatest legacy may be his accommodation to change on the issue that has dominated Virginia politics for much of this century: race.

A former segregationist, he gave a critical endorsement to L. Douglas Wilder's bid for lieutenant governor in 1985. Wilder's election made possible his victory as the nation's first elected black governor four years later, and the presidential campaign that Wilder now is conducting.

When Wilder visited Philpott's Southside Virginia district six years ago, the speaker arranged a breakfast with a group of local white conservatives and urged them to support the Democratic nominee.

"You'll be better off for it and so will the state" with a vote for Wilder, Philpott told his friends.

Wilder yesterday canceled a political trip to California to participate in a memorial service for Philpott tomorrow in the state Capitol. Philpott's body will lie in state in the Capitol's Old House chamber, a room that features a large statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, a hero of the speaker's.

"He was able to change with the times perhaps better than the rest of us," said Sen. Howard P. Anderson (D-Halifax), another former segregationist, who went to law school with Philpott and came to the General Assembly the same year.

Philpott once explained that his views on black people were a product of his era and region. "Daddy and them's fundamental philosophy was that you had to treat 'em fairly," he once told a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "That didn't necessarily mean equally, but fairly."

He shifted with the times in other ways too. Philpott admitted that he was baffled and suspicious of the lifestyles and more liberal politics of Northern Virginia -- he sometimes made references to "The People's Republic of Alexandria" -- but of political necessity he worked with the area on issues such as transportion funding.

On many subjects, though, Philpott saw no need for flexibility. The speaker had disdain for such perennial proposals as elected school boards -- Virginia is the only state not to have them -- or expanded power for local governments, both ideas that have strong support in Northern Virginia. He didn't hesitate to use his power to defeat them.

That power was immense. Like all Virginia speakers, Philpott wielded influence by granting committee assignments to delegates and deciding which bills went to which committees. But fellow legislators said he dramatically expanded such formal authority with other strengths that were singularly his: a superb memory and an unmatched knowledge of the state's legal code, much of which he had helped to write.

All this ability came wrapped in the most memorable of packages. Though a man of ordinary height, Philpott seemed a larger-than-life figure on the speaker's podium, where he directed business with a gavel in one hand and a pipe in the other, his face twisted into an expression of detachment and disdain as he looked upon the delegates on the House floor.

Wilder last night said that no speaker will ever match Philpott's stature.

"You won't see that kind of deference and almost legendary respect," Wilder said, "because it's the passing of an era more than the passing of a man."

"He perfected the art of the well-timed scowl," recalled Del. Leslie L. Byrne, a Fairfax Democrat.

J.T. Shropshire, Wilder's chief of staff and a protege of the speaker's, recalled that, in the mid-1960s, Philpott dreamed of being governor. But the political machine that ran the state at the time, led U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd, rejected Philpott because they believed he was too liberal.

Instead, "he decided he would make his mark as a legislator rather than a politician," Shropshire said.

While cultivating a more statewide perspective in his climb toward the speakership, Philpott never lost the parochialism that is the foundation of legislative politics. He fought relentlessly for local projects, including a state-funded museum for his district and the giant U.S. Highway 58 project across the southern tier of Virginia.

Philpott was also a lawyer. After graduating from the University of Richmond in 1941, he served in the Army during World War II, then returned to the University of Richmond and received a law degree in 1947.

He returned to his home town of Bassett -- where he lived on Philpott Lane, not far from Philpott dam -- to start a practice, which he maintained for the rest of his life.

Philpott had battled cancer much of the past 19 years. He decided last week to retire from the House with deep reluctance, associates said, and only after his doctors told him that his death was imminent and a return to Richmond impossible.

His replacement as speaker will be elected by the House when members return for the 1992 session in January.

Philpott is survived by his wife, the former Katherine "Kitty" Apperson Spencer, whom he married in 1941; a son, Albert Lee Philpott Jr. of Stafford County, Va.; and a daughter, Judy P. Divers of Richmond.

Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.