HE IS A superb politician who doesn't run for office, he has been enthusiastically endorsed by every local official in the Greater Washington region for 25 years, and he is held in the highest regard by professional colleagues across the country. But if the name Walter A. Scheiber doesn't ring a bell in all the households that his accomplishments have affected in this metropolitan area, it's because he prefers to work behind the scenes. Mr. Scheiber, who turned the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments into a national pace-setter for regional government cooperation -- uniting local and state officials from Maryland, Virginia and the District on pioneer projects -- is retiring as the organization's executive director.

The many ventures in regional government that COG coordinates -- in housing, transportation, air and water pollution and other fields that transcend city-suburban boundaries -- may be taken for granted these days, but not so in the early years of the organization. COG's establishment 33 years ago happened at a meeting in the District Building attended by 40 elected and appointed officials from around the region. Robert A. McLaughlin, president of the D.C. Board of Commissioners (the appointed city government leaders), said, "Perhaps to break the ice, it would be well for all of us to know who the other people are. Would you rise and state your name and connection?" As Mr. Scheiber notes, "Regional meetings no longer have to start that way."

The regional agreements reached by COG did not come easily, nor did acceptance of any sort of regional body. Fears of "super-government" and suspicions among the elected leaders of the various local governments need intelligent mediation, consensus and understanding. As one longtime suburban representative once noted, it has been Mr. Scheiber who brought things together and led COG into new territory -- the "consummate professional, a superb diplomat." He did it with style, grace and results -- and all of Greater Washington, from the outer counties to the heart of downtown, is the better for it.