DOROTHY BARTLETT MCCARDLE, who died of a heart attack on Wednesday, had been plying the journalist's trade for half a century. No inconsiderable part of that half-century seems to have been spent scaling walls, tramping through woods, staking out hideaways and otherwise deviling reluctant subjects and sources. An editor of this newspaper once recalled having been instructed to say only "You'll see her when you see her" to Mrs. McCardie's frantic daughter for the better part of a whole weekend: Mrs. McCardle herself was - yet again - out lurking in the underbrush, peering through fences and interviewing workmen and other hired help who came off the lavish, guarded property of a very social family that was trying (in vain) to have a very social two-day debutante bash without benefit of press attention.

Mrs. McCardle had a gracious manner, a generous nature and snow white hair. Those who inferred from this that she was some kind of pushover, old granny reporter were always wrong and generally sorry. In what was a spectacular fit of misjudgment, even for them, the Nixon White House once decided to go to war with Mrs. McCardle and, naturally, lost. Less well known, perhaps, was her rather more physical encounter with some security bozo at the Soviet embassy, the episode took place during a diplomatic reception when security guards grabbed the camera and seized the film of the photographer accompanying Mrs. McCardle. In the ensuing tussle, Mrs. McCardle gave the astonished guard as good a clop as she got. Some little old granny.

Dorothy McCardle began her career as a crime reporter and (as she herself said) a press "sob sister" in Philadephia. She was the complete professional and utterly without pretension. The encounters we describe above, along with innumerable other dogged and often mischievous attempts to get the story and get it now and get it straight, defined her matter-of-fact, unassuming idea of journalism. In this time of all too frequent posturing and self-dramatization on the part of journalists, it is impossible to imagine Mrs. McCardle engaging in any of that tiresome stuff. She wrote and thought about what she saw, what she found out, not about herself. She was a stranger to self-pity and self-indulgence, a person always on the lookout for new adventure (she in fact started taking flying lessons as a widow well into her 60s).

Dorothy McCardle, in other words, stayed alert, curious, courageous and involved until the moment of her death at 74. She was a good friend, a warm woman and a hell of a reporter.