"Be not unmindful of the future," reads the motto on the family coat-of-arms, but for those who belong to the Society of the Lees of Virginia, it is a carefully nurtured kinship with the past that illuminates the present.

Among their ancestors they include a former governor of Virginia (Lighthorse Harry Lee), two signers of the Declaration of Independence (brothers Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee), a U.S. President (Zachary Taylor) and, among the living, the current acting governor of Maryland Blair Lee III).

They include as well one Robert E. Lee, general of the armies of the Confederacy, although his name is not one of those volunteered with much enthusiasm by society members.

"Oh, let's leave Robert out of this," sighs Frances N. Shively, secretary of the society. "He's always gotten all of the attention, while everyone else just gets ignored."

And attention is something that the living descendants would just as soon direct away not only from Robert, but from any Lee who hasn't been dead at least a decade. "We're so afraid that people will think we feel that we're better than anybody else," said Armistead M. Lee, the society's president. "And it just isn't that sort of thing."

Society members clearly shudder at the idea of being associated with the stereotypical image of wide-girthed, narrow-minded matrons who graft a sense of overwhelming superiority on to their long-limbed family trees.

Instead, the reasons for belonging are as varied as the 580 members of the society. They are all descendants of Richard Lee the Emigrant, a Shropshire lad who first surfaced in the Virginia history in 1638, represented a London cousin in the fur trade and acquired thousands of acres of land and a number of important governing posts in the colony.

"It's a link," said Hally Montague Baker, 32, who is descended from four different branches of the family tree. "The past is prologue. If you know where you come from, you have more of a future. Knowing what it used to be like can be kind of a solace when life these days can be so rotten."

For Armistead Lee, the society provides a counterpoint to the more disonant rhythms of the '70s helping to overcome what he calls "the anonymity of our urban-suburban existence, where grandparents are sent off to nursing homes and parents don't have the time to see their children grow."

And for Eleanor Lee Templeman, the great great granddaughter of Northern Virginia's first congressman, the society is where the battle is joined against "the bulldozer and the grim reaper." Coming from a California town where "people didn't even know their grandparents' maiden names," she has spent the last 30 years "busy trying to save one thing after another."

For her the purpose of the society is clear. "We try not to lean back on our ancestors," she said, "but to be inspired by them. They were rebels, too."

Theirs, they say, is an informal society, with group activities subordinated to the more personal satisfaction gleaned from belonging. Meetings are held annually, near ancestral homes that have long since passed into the care of the state of various preservation societies.

The society's work is undertaken by a board of directors, who insure that the graves of once prominent Lees are tended, that scholarships are awarded to deserving Lee descendants and research published that illuminates the lives of those forbears whom history has forgotten.

Ever since the Bicentennial, however, and particularly with the phenomenal popularity of the television version of "Roots," one society task, that of screening new members, has increased dramatically.

To qualify, those interested must submit a genealogy proving their lineage from Richard the Emigrant and be recommended for membership by a member of the society.

"Of course," said Frances Shively, "they all want to be descended from Robert F. Lee, but with 45 other Lee families in Virginia who aren't related to Richard the Emigrant, I'm afraid we have to tell many of them that they aren't qualified."

Nevertheless, Shively has sympathy for the instinct that urges the applicants onward. "In my day," she said, "America seemed so new that we thought all the history was in Europe. I think now, with Vietnam and Watergate being so shattering, people started saying, 'let's take a look at what was there, the kinds of things that can't be swept away.'"

Hally Baker is grateful for the popularity of "Roots", because it has made the task of explaining her own interest in her forebearers to puzzled friends much easier.

Baker, whose formal first names, Harriotte Lee, have been held by 13 other Lee women over the years, has been going to Lee Society meetings since she was a child and her father, the late Ludwell Montague, was president.

But it was only after she herself became an adult, she said, that a sense of obligation turned to one of interest.

When she was a teen-ager, Baker said, she kept her Lee lineage hidden as if it were a skeleton in the family closet. "Some people acted as if it were an honor to touch you just because you were a Lee," she said. "I didn't want people to think I was one of those types who think that just because their ancestors were here in time for the Revolution that they're better than everybody else."

In addition, Baker said, the past could put a certain burden on the present. "All your life it would be drummed into your head that all those guys were so great," she said, referring to her illustrious forebears. "They don't tell you about the creeps. It can be a real burden. How do you compete with a man who wrote the Virginia Constitution?"

Now Baker is the chairman of the society's acquisition committee, in charge of cataloguing Lee memorabilia and of trying to cajole Lee descendants into giving or loaning family heirlooms to places like the Lee-Fendall House in Alexandria where they can be enjoyed by the public.

"You can look at a tankard from the 18th century," Baker said," and you know that it wasn't stamped out by some machine but made by hand, that it belonged to a particular person and to a long ago tradition that can't be replaced."

There is as well, Baker said, "a feeling of kinship" that pervades the annual meetings of the society. "It's like a family reunion," she said. "It makes you realize how the extended families that people used to have can make life a whole lot better."

Other society members concern themselves with the rescue of obscure Lee ancestors whose reputations time has scattered like leaves in an autumn wind. It is an activity that concerns even the less passionately devoted members.

Armistead Lee, for instance, will make it clear from the start that "while I'm not contemptuous of the society, it's not a consuming passion with me." Yet when an article was published in the State Department newsletter casting aspersion on the competency of one Arthur Lee, who served in the first American diplomatic mission to Paris during the Revolution, his descendant was ready to respond.

"I was appalled at the treatment" the unfortunate ancestor received, Armistead Lee wrote in a three-page rebuttal. "Certainly Arthur Lee has not had justice done him by the official organ of the department, and of a Foreign Service he helped to found."

But then Arthur Lee himself, if he had been a witness to the fracas, would probably have thought it had a familiar ting to it. John Adams apparently had Lee's number in 1819, when he described Arthur as a man," . . . too honest, upright, faithful and intrepid to be popular . . . This man never had justice done to him by his country in his lifetime and I fear he never will have by posterity. His reward cannot be in this world."

So far Adams' prophecy seems to be an accurate one, but not forever if Frances Shively has anything to do with it. Sitting in the library of the Lee-Fendall House where she lives, it is the present that seems obscured by the late afternoon shadows and the past that comes to life as Shively strives to set history aright like an energetic housekeeper faced with a dusty attic.

Although Shively herseIf is not a Lee ("I'm a Marshall myself") she is an honorary life member of the society and the repository of the kind of historical data that would send many historians scurrying to footnotes in obscure texts to retrieve.

In addition, like many society members, she talks about the ancestors of her adopted family like an affectionate aunt talking about the nephews upstairs. "Even though they're dead," Shively said, "they're living people to me."

She comes to the defense of all the Lees, even those upon whom history has looked less than kindly. Henry Lee Jr., for instance, the son of Lighthorse Harry Lee and Robert E. Lee's half brother.

Henry, it seemed, not only managed to go badly into debt, but fathered an illegitimate child by his ward, Elizabeth. The child was still born, but Shively said, "the damage was done."

"Of course," said Shively, "I blame Elizabeth. There was Anne (Henry's wife) addicted to morphine and there they all were at Stratford, with the wolves howling all night." Besides, she said, "it was a very cold winter that year."

She rails as well as the historians who have maligned Lighthorse Harry Lee, and in this case, even the Illustrious Robert E. Lee does not escape a mild rebuke. Robert, it seems, had edited some of his father's letters in such a way as to eliminate his professions of love for wife and children, leaving poor Harry looking like a pretty cold fish. "I could just kill Robert for that," Shively said. "If he were around, I'd wring his neck."

The stories spun on, the past suddenly a mere shadow away from the present and Shively was asked why it was necessary to protect these men and women who so long ago had shed the passing vanities of fame and fortune.

"The truth," she said, "is a very important thing."