Though I didn't know him as well as I wished to, I feel cheated by the sudden death of O. B. Hardison. So, I imagine, do hundreds of others. The legendary English professor and former director of the Folger Shakespeare Library died quite unexpectedly the other day. He was 61, an age that seems to me increasingly youthful.

He and I were occasionally drawn together by common southern connections, including fond memories of Chapel Hill, where he had been a very popular teacher for a dozen years before coming to the Folger.

His color and vitality was such that I can recall our first meeting, and several others, as if they were yesterday. Especially the first. I was writing a fairly esoteric magazine piece about the feud between the critic Edmund Wilson and the Modern Language Association. The issue was who would win federal funding for new and comprehensive editions of the classic American authors.

With comic indignation, Wilson had blasted an inanimate optical device, the Hinman Collator, invented some years earlier at the Folger for discovering textual variants in Shakespeare. Wilson denounced it as a sort of robot, emblematic of the sterility of the professoriat. O. B., who was an English professor by trade but not a party to the dispute, volunteered to give me a demonstration of the Hinman Collator. He accompanied the display with a spectacular volley of puns and wisecracks about everything from movies to detective fiction to Newtonian optics, on all of which he seemed to be an expert.

Suddenly, as he peered into the collator, he asked if I had ever seen a Shakespeare folio. I hadn't.

''Come on,'' he said merrily, like a Tom Sawyer leading a less clever friend off on a mischievous spree. ''We have lots of the things downstairs.''

We descended into the Folger vaults. There, locked behind grillwork, majestic in their dark old leather bindings, stood one of the two greatest collections of Shakespeare folios, survivors from the Bard's own time. I stood there bug-eyed, a bit breathless, as if permitted in mortal form to tiptoe down the golden streets of paradise.

O. B., however, was less reverent. ''Here,'' he said, unlocking the grill and manhandling one of the venerable old volumes as if it were the bound copies of last year's Sports Illustrated. He thrust it into my shaky hands. ''Fondle it,'' he said -- his choice of verbs was always acute -- ''it's only a book, after all.''

With this introduction, I knew what to expect -- the unexpected -- when, some five years later, our paths crossed again. I had come to Washington to work at the Washington Star, and a few days after my arrival he summoned me to lunch at a noisy Capitol Hill bistro. In this and other encounters he never failed to warn me of the dangers of becoming unduly reactionary.

''This is pretty right-wing for a Carolina boy,'' he would say, with an engaging grimace, of some Star editorial or column that had raised his eyebrow. I would protest that it was not right-wing at all, it was simply a judgment of the matter on its merits. ''Does your southern Dad buy that explanation?'' he would ask with a twinkle in his eye. He seemed to know the vulnerable points.

As I think back on a fond acquaintanceship that nearly, but never quite, became a friendship, it is the confessional urge I felt in his company that comes to mind. There was an intense purity in his questions, and it demanded honesty. Beneath the layers of learning, gaiety and wit, O. B. Hardison thirsted to settle the hard questions, to cram into one lifetime all the books and poetry, all the discussions and arguments, it would hold.

The parties he and his wife Marifrances gave were scenes of noisy and gracious disorder, crowded with too many interesting people and too much good talk for one roof. O. B. Hardison seemed to me an improbable Washingtonian, although as a Navy brat, the son of an admiral, he had spent much of his boyhood here, and it seemed to suit him.

But the capital is a political village at heart, and for true believers power is the measure of the true and the beautiful. For O. B., the true and the beautiful were clearly the measure by which the exercise of power was to be judged. He seemed a sort of missionary to us heathens, an evangelist of sober living and high thinking to the spoiled junkies of politics, journalism and the law who abound here.

Like many who liked and admired him, I feel cheated that his mission to the heathens was cut short. We needed him, and a replacement of his breadth will be hard to find.