When asked why he had gotten involved in District affairs, Walter N. Tobriner once replied that his family had prospered here and "I felt I owed something to the town." But Mr. Tobriner, who died Saturday at age 77, was such a generous public servant and such an effective, principled leader that by the time he stepped aside in 1967, it was the town that was deeply in debt to him.

Mr. Tobriner was a man of many ideas and strong beliefs - in equality, in education, in political liberty. He steered this city by those lights through several phases of its emergence from official segregation and colonial rule. As a member and then president of the Board of Education from 1952 to 1961, he guided the school system and the community through the challenges of desegregation. As president of the Board of Commissioners from 1961 to 1967, he ended some oppressive police practices and made progress in expanding housing opportunities. Throughout those trying years, his fairness and good sense, and the wide public confidence that he had earned, helped to moderate rising social tensions here.

Mr. Tobriner was a sharp critic of the antiquated, awkward three-commissioner form of government that he led. The sharp constraints on local authority and they constant congressional intervention made it "no place for a guy with boldness," he once remarked. Increasingly frustrated, he welcomed President Johnson's decision to reorganize the non-elected government under a single commissioner, and to appoint Walter E. Washington to that job in 1967. He saw the change as further progress toward effective self-government. In his own service, though, Mr. Tobriner showed that appointed officials, too, can govern responsively. He gave his town leadership of rare quality and farsightedness.