Faced with a person in trouble--a student nabbed for fighting, a teacher losing his grip--Bill Sharbaugh always had an advantage, though not in the way many people thought.

He was physically and psychologically imposing, tough when necessary and durable enough to last an astonishing 24 years as principal of Arlington's Washington-Lee High School. He could deliver a cold stare and a harsh word if an incident involved drugs or weapons, making himself the living embodiment of bad news.

But most of the time, when dealing with someone having difficulty, Sharbaugh was something unexpected. He would ask in a soft voice what the trouble was and how he could help. The defenses erected by the person in trouble melted away. In the end, many left the principal's office believing Sharbaugh was one of the few people in the world on their side.

In an era in which good principals are becoming hard to find, it is useful to consider how Sharbaugh succeeded and survived. He retired this spring at age 59, having guided Washington-Lee through unprecedented demographic changes and leaving it with a strong academic reputation rare among schools with so many disadvantaged students.

Ray Anderson, principal of Arlington's H-B Woodlawn program, said Sharbaugh used speed, agility and flexibility. "Bill is very proactive," Anderson said. "He doesn't let any grass grow under his feet. When a problem comes up, he is going to get it solved real fast."

The essential ingredient for Sharbaugh and other great principals is obvious: love of children. His conversation is full of memories of his students. His attitude toward teenagers matches his feelings about golf: The game brings him much anguish but is so full of fun and surprises that he can never give it up.

Sharbaugh grew up in Williamsport, Pa., an active boy who developed a love for teaching from watching a social studies instructor, George Wolfe, engage children. He met his wife, Jacquie, at what is now Lock Haven University. An athlete like her husband, she wanted to teach physical education. The couple, who would eventually raise two sons, came to Montgomery County, where her brother said there were teaching jobs.

Sharbaugh taught mathematics at Northwood High, since closed, and decided to be an administrator after an annoying clash with his principal. The man told Sharbaugh he had to add an extra class to his schedule, despite a rule against such for a teacher already coaching three sports. "I said to myself," Sharbaugh said, "there must be a better way to be an administrator than this."

He earned a doctorate at the University of Maryland, worked five years as an assistant principal at Montgomery's Churchill High with Principal Frank Carricato, then won the principal's job at Washington-Lee when he was 35.

It was a sticky situation. The outgoing principal had successfully sued the Arlington school district for age discrimination. But Sharbaugh made friends with everyone and began to build a reputation, both for his deep devotion to John Wayne--Sharbaugh's office was full of pictures of the actor--and his understanding of teenagers.

He was very quick when trouble struck but tried to be fair, a word of enormous power among adolescents. "On discipline, the first thing you have to do with the kid is find out what is eating him," Sharbaugh said. "The secret in working with kids is smile a lot, be very friendly, be responsive. Don't allow them to dictate what their responsibilities are, but also be willing to listen to their side of the story. Then be as impartial as you possibly can be, and sometimes that means that the teacher doesn't win the particular argument.

"If kids perceive you as fair," he said, "they will take almost anything that you are giving out."

When the population of the school began to change, Sharbaugh was listening carefully to a new generation of students from Latin America and other places he did not know much about. He quickly adjusted. He welcomed the new High Intensity Language Training program for immigrant children but added to his reputation for firmness by banning its designer, Marie Djouadi, from his school for a year when she made some decisions without checking with him.

"Number one, I wanted to know what was going on so that I could be helpful," Sharbaugh said, "and number two I did not want to look like Joe Bump-on-a-Log if somebody asked me a question." The incident has become a favorite joke between Sharbaugh and Djouadi, now principal of Arlington's Wakefield High School. Djouadi said she considers Sharbaugh her mentor.

Sharbaugh actively encouraged a student exchange program with El Salvador conceived by assistant superintendent Hank Gardner and looked for ways to involve more Hispanic parents in the school.

"Dr. Sharbaugh understood the essence of Washington-Lee, its richness of tradition, its values and its priorities," said Linda Henderson, president of the school's PTA. "One of the biggest changes he oversaw was no doubt the change in student diversity, and yet he was able to successfully transcend what was . . . the school's greatest challenges into one of its greatest assets."

For 24 years, Sharbaugh had a routine. He would pull his car, most recently a green Toyota Camry, into the parking lot by 5:15 a.m. and tour the building, getting his custodians to clean up graffiti or any other signs of overnight mischief before any students arrived. He would check with the police resource officer on any neighborhood fights that might affect the school, then welcome teachers and students.

He said it was sometimes annoying to run the school located next door to district headquarters on North Quincy Street, but if he had something he wanted from the superintendent, he took advantage of the proximity. "Fifteen steps and a hop, baby, and I'm right there," he said.

Four years ago he arranged for Washington-Lee to become the first school in the county to have an International Baccalaureate (IB) program, a series of college-level courses and tests administered by the Geneva-based IB Organization. He insisted it be open to any student who wanted in and had even a small chance of success. "My thought was if we got more kids involved in these higher level courses, it is going to raise the educational level of the entire school," he said.

In spring 1998, just a year before Sharbaugh retired, Washington-Lee gave 178 IB tests and 211 Advanced Placement tests, more for its size than 97 percent of the schools in the country. The feat was even rarer for a school in which 40 percent of the students are poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized lunches.

"Every kid can learn," Sharbaugh said. "Not necessarily the same way, not necessarily the same rate, but every kid can learn."

CAPTION: Retired principal Bill Sharbaugh, left, on the links with Scott Forbes and Dan Hughes. Sharbaugh compares golf with teenagers: frustrating yet fascinating.

CAPTION: Retired Washington-Lee High School principal Bill Sharbaugh, right, enjoys getting out on the golf course with the school's chief of security, Dan Hughes.