When Angolan President Agostinho Neto died in a Moscow hospital Monday, just one week short of his 57th birthday, he had not yet completed four years in the office he had struggled so long to attain.

One hot summer day in 1975 thousands of people packed the tiny airport in Angola's capital city of Luanda.

When a chunky, middle-aged black man wearing glasses emerged from a plane, the crowd went wild, breaking into the chant that would reverberate at hundreds of political meetings from then on in Angola: "Neto, Neto, Neto."

Antonio Agostinho Neto, physician, poet and revolutionary, had come home after 15 years in exile during which he headed the struggle of his Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola against the Portugese colonial government.

When Portuguese security police exiled him as a subversive in 1960, Neto promised that he would return to Angola.

In a poem written at Cape Verde, he said: "Courage until my return . . . Our tears will not fall on a coffin but on the happiness of an embrace as we celebrate a new beginning."

This combination of singlemindedness and determination is perhaps Neto's major contribution to the long independence struggle in Angola.

While other African leaders of his generation -- Leopold Senghor of Senegel, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Julius Nyerere of Tanzanbia -- were talking over from departing colonial governors, Neto was seeking political and military aid for the Popular Movement's fight against Lisbon, which resisted the change sweeping the African continent in the 1960s.

After unsuccessfully seeking aid in the West, Neto turned to the Soviet Union and Che Guevara.

Neto stubbornly resisted Western and African calls, once Portugal had agreed to independence, to form a coalition government with two rival Angolan movements that were backed by the West.

Instead, in a decision some labeled reckless and others courageious, Neto asked his old friends the Cubans to help his Popular Movement beat the two opposing groups.

At the same time those organizations considered seeking aid from South Africa and the United States. The Angolan civil war followed in 1975-76; Neto's forces won the war, although there are frequent clashes with South African supported guerillas of the Union for the Total Independence of Angola in southern Angola.

Amid the bloody civil war, with Luanda beleaguered by the Popular Movement's enemies to the north and the south, Neto determinately took the oath of office as president of the first independent government of Angola in a stuffy second-floor room of Luanda's city hall.

The Portuguese had sailed from Luanda the night before handing over power to no one in a country they had ruled for 500 years.

The son of a teacher and Methodist pastor, Neto was born in a village about 40 miles south of Luanda. After high school he worked in the public health department and also served as personal secretary to the American Methodist bishop in Luanda, the Rev. Ralph Dodge.

He then attended medical school in Portugal, but his studies were interrupted when Portuguese secret police arrested him in 1951. Four years later, he spent 10 months in prison for his activities as head of a group of Lisbon students from all of Portugal's colonies.

During this incarceration he was named Amnesty International's prisoner of the year.

With his savings and the help of a scholarship from the American Methodist Church Neto finished medical school in 1958, marrying his Portuguese wife, Maria-Eugenia, on his graduation day.

In 1959 he returned to Angola to practice medicine at a time when many of his friends were fleeing the country because of police repression against those who favored independence. In Luanda, Neto became clandestine head of the Popular Movement, which was formed three years earlier as a broad front of pro-independence people.

In June 1960, the chief of the Portuguese police in Angola arrested Neto in his doctor's office. A subsequent demonstration at Neto's home village ended in what is called the "massacre of Icolo e Bengo" -- 30 dead and 200 wounded.

Neto was exiled by Portuguese authorities, first to the Cape Verde Island and then into jail in Lisbon. International pressure forced the government to release him in 1962 and place him under house arrest. The doctor-politican soon fled, first to Morocco and then to Angola's neighbor, Zaire, where he took up presidency of the Popular Movement and directed the armed struggle against Portugal that began in 1961.

By this time Neto was recognized internationally as a prominent voice in the pro-African cultural movement that stressed pride in blackness.

By this time Neto had come to the conclusion that Marxism offered the best blueprint to redress the injustices of Angola's colonial society that was made up of half a million Portuguese and 6 million blacks and persons of mixed race.

Neto's espousal of Marxism-Leninism, did not prevent him from trying to steer a nonaligned course independent of the major powers. While he sought to neutralize Soviet meddling in Angolan party affairs, he also was making it clear to Washington that he would not accept preconditions on his government -- such as the removal of more than 23,000 Cuban troops still in Angola -- in return for U.S. diplomatic recognition.

Throughout his presidency, Neto had to battle against recurring factionalism, which he coped with by persuasive peacemaking and uncompromising obstinacy. While this kept the party and government together, even in the face of an attempted coup in May 1977, it also led to accusations that Neto was power-hungry.

In public Neto was a man of great personal charm or warmth. He rarely smiled and seemed ill at ease during public addresses. In private, however, among those he knew well, friends say he was warm and endearing.

His wife, Maria Eusenia, and their children live in Luanda.