He reads popular accounts of history and is happiest watching his 12-year-old son play soccer. He keeps a set of golf clubs in his car trunk, but they get so little use he jokes he's something just short of a disaster on the links.

The analysts who worked for him as budget director a decade ago loved to call Craig S. Gerhart "Curly Craig"--joking that the little hair he has left is stick-straight. It was a playful term for a guy who crunches numbers and has learned pretty much every corner of local government in Prince William County without taking himself too seriously.

Meet Craig Gerhart: family man, insider, regular guy, local government whiz and the county's new acting county executive.

"He's just a fun guy, the type of guy you want to go and have a beer with all the time," said Abdusalam Omer, chief of staff for D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and Prince William budget analyst from 1989 to 1992. Omer credits Gerhart, along with Williams, with "teaching me most of the things I know."

Gerhart, 44, was appointed Prince William's top manager by the Board of County Supervisors last week, replacing Bern Ewert, who resigned as county executive Tuesday after a stormy three-year tenure. Supervisors say they intend to conduct a local search for a permanent successor, but the search is likely to be a formality. Supervisors say they'd be hard-pressed to overlook Gerhart or Ewert's other deputy, Pierce Homer, a longtime, popular top aide who is working in Richmond this winter as Prince William's legislative lobbyist during the General Assembly session.

"We'd be happy with either one, so we won't have to go outside," said Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries), echoing the sentiments of several board members. "We want both of them to stay in the county. They're both very valuable employees."

The board plans to make a decision by June.

Gerhart, who lives in Lake Ridge with his wife, Marty Reinhart, and son, Daniel, has worked in county government during a 20-year career that started as a college intern in Prince George's County. A native of Lancaster County, Pa., he received a bachelor's degree from Juniata College in Pennsylvania and a master's in public administration from George Mason University.

Gerhart arrived in Prince William in 1983 as assistant to the county executive. He cut his teeth--and earned his reputation--as budget director, seeing the county through the recession of the early 1990s and helping find funding for new schools and other services to accommodate thousands of new residents.

He also was one of the first local budget directors to implement a performance-based system that measures what county agencies achieved with their spending plans. And he brought computers to the budget office earlier than most of his contemporaries in the region.

He's immensely popular with the county staff and the eight supervisors, many of whom have worked with him for years. Unlike Ewert, who came to the job an outsider with a clearly defined agenda to slow growth in the sprawling county, Gerhart prefers not to lay out a vision. He says his goals will be more day-to-day, the first among them preparing the county's 2001 budget for supervisors at the end of February.

"By definition, I plan to focus on the next four or five months," Gerhart said, noting that his appointment is officially temporary.

Two big changes residents could see in the budget are improved compensation and retirement benefits for the county's 2,800 employees and a plan to begin reducing Prince William's property tax rate, which at $1.36 per $100 of assessed value is the highest of any county in Virginia. The "tax trigger" plan is set to take effect when revenues exceed a certain level.

Gerhart also said he wants to work to smooth relations between county staff and the board, making sure policies and ideas suggested by the staff get full consideration by supervisors.

"We've had some instances where it's been an us versus them relationship," he noted. "I don't think it's appropriate for ideas we offer to the board to be discounted because they come from the staff."

One supervisor who has criticized the staff is Edgar S. Wilbourn III (R-Gainesville), who also disliked Ewert for announcing several initiatives without consulting the board.

"I think Craig will try to focus more on what the board wants" than did Ewert, Wilbourn said. "Craig is more of a supervisors' county executive, not a free spirit."

Another goal is to continue the county's efforts to be more customer-friendly when delivering services. For example, clients visiting social service offices should be told how long they'll have to wait for help.

"It's not just about being nice. It's about doing things better and faster," Gerhart said.

Gerhart's salary as acting county executive is $116,000. He wears aviator-style glasses and has a graying beard and mustache. On Friday, he went to work in a flannel shirt, corduroys and a leather jacket.

He said he has spent his career in the public sector partly because he likes the "playground" of diverse tasks he confronts every day, from reviewing crime reports from the Police Department to balancing the county budget to managing employees. "It's a wonderful generalist field," he said.

He's a big family man, attending church every Sunday and leading his son's Boy Scout troupe for camping and other activities. The last book he read was Bill Bryson's "Notes From a Small Island." He's currently tackling Steven Ambrose's biography of the explorers Lewis and Clark, "Undaunted Courage."

Omar said he has tried to recruit Gerhart to Williams's administration on numerous occasions in recent months, as budget director or chief financial officer. "I say to him, 'Don't you want to get out of the boondocks and support the nation's capital?' " Omar recalled with a chuckle. "But it's an exercise in futility."

Gerhart said he intends in coming weeks to establishing himself as the county's public face, a role viewed by the board and others as Homer's strength, given his long tenure as Prince William's liaison with state legislators and other elected officials in Northern Virginia.

"Craig knows the inside of government very well, and Pierce knows the outside very well," said one supervisor, who asked not to be identified. "It's just a question of what strengths the board wants."

Still, Gerhart is a known quantity to many county residents who have negotiated with him for services at the most local level.

"He never treats you as if you should be smarter and should know better," said Paul Moessner, former executive director of Action in the Community Through Service, a nonprofit human service agency that has contracts with the county.

CAPTION: "Craig is more of a supervisors' county executive, not a free spirit," Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn III said.