"It's almost time, it's almost time," said 60-year-old Virginia Gunnoe said as she kept looking at her watch yesterday on the flight from Washington to Gainesville.

After being confined for almost half a century at Forest haven, the District of Columbia's institution for the mentally retarded where she was taken 45 years ago because she was suffering from tyhoid fever, Mrs. Gunnoe was about to be reunited with her family.

When the plane landed, her family burst from behind the barricades to greet the woman they had fought for 15 years to get released from Forest Haven. Right out front was her 19-year-old grandson, Earl Harvey Jr., who had led the effort for Gunnoe's freedom "because I needed someone to talk to."

"Don't cry, baby, don't cry," Mrs. Gunnoe said to her daughter, Mary Louise Hunter, who was seeing her mother for the second time in her life. "Oh, mama, mama, Oh my Lord."

"This is my baby daughter," Mrs. Gunnoe said to the Forest Haven social worker, Gwendolyn Walls, who had accompanied her on the flight. "This is my girl."

Mrs. Gunnoe, who was born in 1909 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, to a Spanish-speaking father and a French-speaking mother, spoke virtually no English at all when she arrived in the United States as a young girl, she said. Married at the age of 13, she had delivered five children when in 1933, at the age of 24, living in Quantico, Va., she caught typhoid fever.

"I was a domestic, I took care of the children of a friend of my sister's," she said. "Then I got very sick, with a high fever, and I was taken to a doctor. Ther doctor put me in there (Forest Haven). My children were taken away from me, and I couldn't get out."

Although her family made efforts to get her released from Forest Haven, they were rebuffed by administrators who told them that Mrs. Gunnoe's commitment was irrevocable and life-long, relatives said. Such treatment was standard procedures until recently according to mental health and mental retardation officals.

Fifteen years ago Mary Louise Hunter her youngest daughter, tried to get her mother released from the institution where she had been a competent and trusted seamstress in the tailoring shop. "I kept telling the District officials that she wasn't insane (a legal reason for the incarceration of the mentally handicapped), but they wouldn't listen. One them told [WORD ILLEGIBLE] not to write to him anymore."

Last year, Hunter's son, Earl Harvey Jr., became depressed at the loss of his paternal grandmother and decided to write to Mrs. Gunnoe, his maternal grandmother, for support," he said.

"I needed someone to talk to, an elder person, someone I could talk with," a joyous Harvey said after his grandmother's arrival yesterday evening.

It was Harvey who renewed the contact with Mrs. Gunnoe that officials had tried to suppress, and who organized the other grandchildren into chipping in the $86 airfare for the one-way ticket to Florida.

Although Mrs. Gunnoe was labelled "moderately retarded" by Forest Haven officials, the original records made prior to her incarceration never have been found, according to Ruth Messe, a Forest Haven social worker.

people with a poor command of English who were in a marginal economic class sometimes were labeled as retarded and institutionalized, especially during the years of the Great Depression, according to Robert Plotkin, the senior attorney for the Mental Health Law Project in Washington, D.C.

Although he did not know of Mrs. Gunnoe's case, he said, "there are many cases similar to what she went through. We see them all the time."

Harvey and other family members credit a volunteer aide at Forest Haven, Darlene Walker, and a social worker, Gwendolyn Walls, with helping them get Mrs. Gunnoe out.

"Darlene told us that she (Mrs. Gunnoe) could leave Forest Haven, even though someone else had told us they wouldn't let it happen," Harry said yesterday.

Once, more than 15 years ago, Mrs. Gunnoe had been taken from Forest Haven by a relative to live with her in Iowa. For some reason the experience was an unpleasant one. "It wasn't very nice," Mrs. Gunnoe said yesterday, and she was returned to the cottages at Forest Haven.

Since then, the officials had told Hunter and Harvey that "they wouldn't let her out," Harvey said.

Darlene Walker, however, told Harvey that in fact his grandmother could be released if the family would care for her. They agreed.

Additionally, Walker told him about the federal government's deinstitutionalization program, begun in 1971, which in the last seven years has reduced the nation's population of institution residents from 190,000 to 130,000. Walker told the family that as one of the higher functioning Forest Haven residents, Mrs. Gunnoe would have a chance of being released under the program.

In June this year, as the family continued its efforts to free Mrs. Gunnoe, U.S. District Court Judge John H. Pratt signed an historic consent decree, in which representatives of the District of Columbia agreed to release 1,000 of its 5,000 residents to community treatment centers and cease admitting anyone else to the institution.

Because her family had expressed an interest in having her live with them, Mrs. Gunnoe was one of those selected to leave.

Yesterday, as Mrs. Gunnoe was leaving her cottage at Forest Haven, 10 other elderly residents, many of whom had been there for as long as Mrs. Gunnoe, stood in the waiting room and waved her off.

"Don't do anything to come back," one resident advised her, fighting back tears.

"Why can't I get out of here, like her?" another woman asked a social worker, who later told a reporter that the woman's family refused to take her in.

Mrs. Gunnoe's flight to Florida was held up temporarily when an airline representative told Forest Haven officials that Mrs. Haven could not board the plane unless she was accompanied by a social worker and had a medical release form.

Although social worker Gwendolyn Walls accompanied Mrs. Gunnoe, the medical form was waived. Mrs. Gunnoe, who had lived for her letters from her family for years, recognized all the faces at the Gainesville airport, addressing each relative by name, and he cried along with them.

From the airport, the Gunnoe party was driven to a relative's house in nearby Lake City, where Mrs. Gunnoe will live. There, relatives and neighbors had put on a big country feast all in her honor.

"I feel fine about being home with the family," Mrs. Gunnoe said as she entered the house of Earl Harvey Sr., her grandson's father.

Across the doorway to the home was a banner: "Welcome Home."