SOME OF THE MOST significant contributions to public service in a community have come from that rare breed of citizen who doesn't really need the work - the person willing to top an already distinguished career with a thankless government assignment. Neville Miller, who died here last Sunday at the age of 83, was just such as man. In 1960, when he became chairman of this city's urban renewal agency - the Redevelopment Land Agency - Mr. Miller had already enjoyed an impressive career; mayor of his native city of Louisville, Ky,; dean of the University of Kentucky Law School; assistant to the president of Princeton University; president of the National Association of Broadcasters; and a highly successful communications lawyer. But for the next decade it was the gentle understanding of Neville Miller that was to see urban renewal through some of its most turbulent times in the nation's capital. These were the peak years of rebuilding Southwest Washington.

His interest in Washington had grown through membership in the Washington Housing Association, a public interest group. Mr. Miller soon immersed himself in the life of this city, and his love affair with it never subsided. As the bricks-and-mortar experts razed and built, Mr. Miller constantly thought about the people whose lives were affected by his agency's acts. He talked, for example, about hanging name tags on every tree in Southwest, so the new children there would have a heritage, to known an elm from a silver birch. That was, as a reporter once wrote, "a much nicer thought than having to worry about people lying down in front of bulldozers."

Reflecting on the progress of the Southwest project, which had already been planned by the time he took office, Mr. Miller observed that,for all its glitter, glass and glamour, it needed "flair" - paintings, sculpture, parks, flower stalls and such. And he worried about a sense of neighborhood: "It's much easier and cheaper for a developer to tear down old houses and put up new ones," he commented, "but you get much less resentment by relocating in the same neighborhood and letting the citizens participate."

In the technical, bureaucratic world of urban planners, this courtly, compassionate man always shunned the spotlight but constantly stood out. We will miss Neville Miller, but his achievements will remain for Washingtonians to appreciate forgenerations to come.