HE WOULD LIKE to be remembered as one of the best lawyers in the Senate. He was certainly that, but he was much more. Jacob K. Javits, who died Friday in Florida at the age of 81, was a powerful advocate for minorities and the poor, a leader of the progressive wing of the Republican Party and the creative force behind landmark legislation in fields as diverse as pension reform and foreign policy.

He was born the son of an immigrant janitor on New York's lower east side and was proud to say that his mother learned to read and write when she was 55. He rose far beyond poverty and the tenements, but he did not forget them or the people who remained in the ghettos of America. First elected to Congress in 1946 following service in World War II, Mr. Javits established himself as a bright, sometimes abrasive but effective legislator. In 1954 he was elected attorney general of New York State, and two years later he won the Senate seat which had been held by Herbert Lehman. He served in the Senate longer than any New Yorker had, and that service spanned a time of social change and an enlarging federal role in the life of the nation.

Sen. Javits played a critical part in the passage of civil rights legislation in the '60s. He was a leader of the group of Republicans who had long supported such legislation and were crucial in providing the votes necessary for cloture and passage. Because of his commitment to this cause, the senator resigned a position of some seniority on the Senate Banking Committee in 1964 in order to take a seat on the Judiciary Committee. He was, for many years, the senior member of his party on the Labor and Human Resources Committee and was the author of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which is designed to monitor and protect the pension funds of working Americans. The consuming interest of his later years in the Senate, however, was the Foreign Relations Committee. There he worked for peace in the Middle East, for economic development in the Third World and for a preeminent and compassionate role for this country in world affairs.

Jacob Javits' life was full, and his contributions were many. Among them was the example of courage, determination, spirit and energy with which he faced the prolonged terminal illness that marked his last years. The grace with which he met this terrible affliction added luster to a public career full of accomplishment.