State Sen. Robert H. Kittleman was visiting with his longtime friend Dorothye Craft at a ceremonial dinner in mid-July when he told her he was very sick.

His leukemia, diagnosed last spring, was not responding to treatment, he said. The prognosis from his doctors was grim.

"He just stated it like a fact," said Craft, whose late husband, Silas, was a prominent Howard County educator and a compatriot of Kittleman's during the civil rights era. "He wasn't depressed. He knew he didn't have a lot of time left."

Kittleman, 78, died Saturday afternoon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore after slipping into unconsciousness a few hours earlier that day. His passing prompted eulogies from a host of state and county leaders, who said his deeply ingrained sense of fair play led him to persistently challenge the status quo, whether it be entrenched racial segregation in Howard or the Democrats' stranglehold on state politics.

"He is Mr. Republican in Howard County," said state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader (R-Howard).

Kittleman pursued his goals with a beguiling grin and a soft-spoken, humble demeanor.

"Bob demonstrated an ability to fight the good fight in a dignified and really amicable way," said Christopher J. McCabe, a former Howard state senator who is state secretary of human resources. "That's increasingly less common now."

Howard M. Rensin, chairman of the county's Republican Party, said the party's nine-member Central Committee will meet late this month to recommend to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. an appointee to fill Kittleman's term in the Maryland Senate, which extends through 2006.

Kittleman, born in Omaha, was the son of a Republican district judge and grew up in northwestern Iowa where, he recalled in an April interview with The Washington Post, "they just didn't elect Democrats."

But when he moved to Howard in the late 1950s as an engineer for Westinghouse Electric Corp., he learned the tables were turned in overwhelmingly Democratic Maryland. Kittleman set out to find where the few Republicans were in Howard and discovered that a sizable number were black. He had never met a black person, but he introduced himself to community leaders such as Leola and Remus Dorsey.

"I said I need some help with the Republican Party here," he recalled. "They said, sure, we'll help you. They said, you know, we need some help, too, in the NAACP. How would you like to come help us? I said okay."

It was no casual promise. He became the first white member of the Howard chapter of the NAACP and then chairman of its Education Committee. For years he was on the front lines of the battle to desegregate Howard schools and businesses.

The Rev. Douglas Sands, a Howard native who in 1961 served as a special assistant to the governor on minority affairs, remembers when a skinny, fast-talking white man came into his office to ask for help in desegregating Howard schools.

"I just listened to [Kittleman] as he told me about the history," said Sands, who was a 1952 graduate of Howard's all-black Harriet Tubman High School. "It was so plain and straight. I thought, 'How did I miss this guy?' "

As a divorced father with three children to raise, Kittleman postponed for years his own ambitions to win elective office, said his son Allan, a current member of the County Council. The elder Kittleman's campaign in 1982 for a seat in the House of Delegates relied less on fundraising than on canvassing neighborhoods door-to- door and waving to motorists on street corners. He was the first Howard Republican elected to the Maryland House in more than 60 years, and he soon was cultivating more would-be Republican candidates.

Robert L. Flanagan, now state secretary of transportation and a former western Howard delegate, said when he first ran for office in 1986, Kittleman "took me under his wing. He added legitimacy to my campaign."

Standing together for long hours on street corners and waving to motorists, Flanagan, a fellow Republican, said he learned Kittleman's political tenets.

"His idea of public service rested on being accessible to people," Flanagan said. "He was always answering phone calls or letters and letting people know they could contact him. He held onto that his entire career."

In early 2002, Kittleman was appointed to fill the state Senate seat left vacant by McCabe, who had resigned to take a Washington job. He was unopposed in his election later that year for the seat. He served on the Senate's powerful Budget and Taxation Committee, a platform for his firm fiscal conservatism.

Although his colleagues regarded him as a senior statesman, Kittleman saw himself as a farmer. He rose long before dawn to tend cattle at his West Friendship farm and afterward headed to his Annapolis office. Kittleman's stamina was legendary, but as he battled leukemia, he grew frustrated that he could no longer unload truckloads of hay.

Even as the disease closed in, Kittleman carried on, vacationing last month in Alaska with 26 members of his family. He tried to keep appointments and was to receive a humanitarian award given annually by Howard's Community Action Council at its dinner this past Sunday . Kittleman had planned to attend, but he went to the hospital Friday.

The annual dinner went on as planned, and Kittleman's wife, Trent, and his children attended. The stories about Kittleman started, and there were tears glistening on faces in the audience. But, as Executive Director Dorothy L. Moore recalled, "it was an evening of joy."

State Sen. Robert H. Kittleman's deeply ingrained sense of fair play led him to challenge the status quo, state and county leaders say. Left, he is shown in 2002 with state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, who called him "Mr. Republican in Howard County."