Elliot Richardson, who will be memorialized today at the Washington Cathedral, will go down in history as one of the nation's finest public servants. He was the go-to guy for two presidents.

Besides serving as Richard Nixon's undersecretary of state; secretary of health, education and welfare; secretary of defense; and attorney general, Richardson was Gerald Ford's secretary of commerce and ambassador to Great Britain. In his shining hour, Richardson resigned as attorney general rather than follow a presidential directive to obstruct justice.

But in all of the tributes since Richardson's death on New Year's Eve, not a word has been mentioned about his contribution to a cause that helped numerous African Americans in the Washington area and beyond. It was a less-publicized chapter in his life. In terms of people affected, however, his actions were as significant as the posts he held.

About one month after Richardson became secretary of health, education and welfare in June 1970, I joined his department as an HEW fellow with then-Undersecretary John G. Veneman. The fellows program was the brainchild of civil rights leader James Farmer, who was serving as HEW's assistant secretary for administration. Farmer's aim was simple: find promising minorities in mid-career private or public sector jobs outside of HEW and attach them to a top department official for a year to observe decision-making in the upper reaches of government. That's how I landed in the office of the secretary.

In addition to shadowing Veneman and sitting in on some of his meetings with Richardson, I took on the job of finding out what HEW was doing about sickle cell anemia, a debilitating genetic disease found primarily in people of African American descent. The disease is hardly rare. About one in every 600 black people has sickle cell; one in 12 carries the trait. Each year, about 1,000 babies are born with the disease. It was a disease that also was getting the silent treatment.

The assignment took me to Howard University, where Dr. Roland Scott had been trying with little success to get federal help to work on sickle cell. In two decades of effort, Scott had managed to secure only $70,000.

If there was a culprit in the underfunding of research into sickle cell disease, it was the untouchable National Institutes of Health.

At least that's what I concluded, after examining records and talking to NIH staff. Until 1970, NIH had never obligated more than $250,000 to sickle cell research. Stack that up against cystic fibrosis, a disease afflicting mainly white people that produced about 1,200 cases a year -- only a few more than sickle cell. NIH's allocation to cystic fibrosis: $11.8 million between 1967 and 1971.

NIH said it worked on problems that posed the greatest concern to the largest number of people. By that standard, diseases most prevalent among racial minorities would always come in a distant second for federal support. It also didn't help to have only one African American serving on the 113 NIH advisory groups reviewing outside grant requests.

I sent a memo of my findings to Veneman and Richardson. The operative word in my report was "neglect." NIH went berserk. But I had Veneman and Richardson in my corner.

Under probing by Richardson's office, a health official said that while everything NIH was doing for sickle cell was just hunky-dory, there were, upon further reflection, "new possibilities in [sickle cell] treatment, education and counseling." NIH also created a sickle cell advisory group consisting of top-notch panelists who, before my report, were seldom seen in and around the NIH campus.

Then Richardson, aided by Veneman and his aides Tom Joe and Russell Byers, really began to push.

NIH was ordered to "articulate" a "clearly visible" sickle cell program within five days.

Richardson pressured the White House to publicly promise $6 million to make sickle cell a "targeted" disease for special research. President Nixon did, including the money in his budget request. Congress upped the ante, making it $10 million. It was the start toward upgrading both public awareness of the disease and care for sickle cell patients.

It was also Richardson's opening nudge of the federal health establishment.

In early 1971, he and I visited Howard University's Freedmen's Hospital, making him the first secretary of HEW to go there since Oveta Culp Hobby, Howard's patron ex officio and HEW's first secretary, stopped by in the '50s. After inspecting the aging facilities, touring the hospital's sickle cell, cancer and stroke clinics, and observing how Freedman's was making do with less, Richardson (whose father, two brothers, three uncles and two grandfathers were physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital or Harvard's medical school) was furious.

During the ride back to HEW, I gave him the rundown on Howard grant applications stuck in the federal pipeline. And he gave me the green light to continue rummaging for more information about unaddressed health problems having high impact on blacks. My report, a white paper on minority health problems -- which also touched on the scarcity of racial minority health professionals in the department -- was delivered in August 1971. The health bureaucracy didn't like it, but Richardson did. He ordered action.

Today, there's an up and running Howard University Center for Sickle Cell Disease and a multimillion-dollar Howard University cancer center. In HEW's successor department, Health and Human Services, there's an office of research on minority health at NIH, and minority health offices in the Health Resources and Services Administration. It didn't come about all at once. But credit Richardson, aided by Veneman, Byers and Joe for laying the groundwork. Commend Farmer too.

It all happened 30 years ago. The ranks of the Richardson team that I worked with are now pretty much depleted.

Jack Veneman died a few years ago. Last year, we lost James Farmer in July, Tom Joe in October, Russell Byers on Dec. 4, and the leader, Elliot Richardson, Dec. 31.

They're gone. But what a legacy.