A good man, William J. Baroody Sr., died the other day. Most people knew him as the builder of the American Enterprise Institute, a lively, successful think tank, and remarked that this productive man deserved more years. He served on all manner of prestigious boards, was adviser to presidents and bore the credentials of an authentic pillar of Washington.

And yet, there was more to Bill Baroody than all that. Behind the obits was a fascinating man who led an exciting life, an innovator to be envied because he quietly created something of value. Baroody was also:

--The son of an immigrant Lebanese stone-cutter who believed America would give him opportunity, and wound up with a grandson (William Baroody Jr.) who became an assistant to the president of the United States.

--A political conservative who believed so fervently in the free competition of ideas that, in addition to conservative thinkers, he recruited into AEI a collection of political and social liberals, including advisers to the 1972 McGovern campaign.

--An Arab-American who never shrank from his heritage, numbered many Jews as his friends and associates and yearned to see a stable Middle East, with Palestinian rights affirmed, Israel's sovereignty recognized and trade between Israel and the Arab states.

--A "liberal" in the ecclesiastical world, a devout Melkite Catholic who believed in a decentralized church, with married clerics.

--A totally tradional family man, a patriarch uninhibited about showing his love for his seven children and 37 granchildren.

When Baroody grew up in New Hampshire, there was some bias against Catholics, but to be a Melkite, a Christian Arab, was to be put to the test.

As a senior at a Roman Catholic high school, Baroody won a competition for the honor of delivering the oratory on St. Patrick's Day. The day before he was to speak, lBaroody was called in by Brother Brennan and given the facts of life.

"He told me I wasn't going to give the speech because there would be 2,000 people there, and 1,997 would be Irish, 'plus you and your parents." He said,'If I put a Lebanese on to give them the life of St. Patrick, there would be a riot, so Danny Burke will give the speech.'"

Baroody, then 16, did not pout or look for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. "I knew what was confronting that particular decision-maker at that particular time," he told me years later, smiling.

He carried that kind of self-effacement with him through life, but quietly was often able to work his will. When he took over AEI, in 1954, it functioned as a trade association, its $80,000 budget used mostly to dispense the free enterprise party line. Baroody managed to persuade its corporate sponsors that an institute that would serve as a marketplace for ideas would ultimately produce substantive research upholding the values of a free market and a free political system.

Today, with a $10 million budget, AEI churns out ideas that feed the conservative movement, giving it a respectability not enjoyed in generations. Among its luminaries are Paul W. McCracken, Milton Friedman, Herbert Stein, Arthur Burns and Gottfried Haberier. Identifiable Democrats recently on the premises include Ben Wattenberg, Austin Ranney, Richard Scammon, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and Seth Tillman, once foreign affairs advisor to Sen. McGovern.

Baroody delighted in bringing good minds together for dialogue, and AEI does that regularly in public, in print and in broadcast. He used to bring home intellectuals, politicians and ecclesastics of the Eastern Rite for his children to hear at dinner, though they were advised to let the elders do the talking.

Similarly, Baroody, who spoke at conventions of the National Association of Arab-Americans and his Jewish colleagues at AEI held intelligent discussions about Middle East problems. Baroody and Irving Kristol, an AEI senior fellow, exchanged views on the Palestinian human rights question on the op-ed page of The Washington Post. If only the Bill Baroodys in the Zionist and Palestinian movements could get together, well, the Middle East would be safer and more peaceful.

A couple of years ago, as Baroody was turning over the AEI presidency to his namesake son, he told me: "I've always felt that a sound idea, soundly pursued, will ultimately challenge the prevailing wisdom and make its mark. I always hoped, and had faith, that this place would 'arrive' at some point."

AEI has. Its scholarship has challenged a bloated, overregulated, omniscient federal government. Its dialogues have cast new light on defense and foreign policy issues. Its fascination for religious, artistic and social matters upholds the notion that people are not mere economic animals, or as Bill Baroody once said: "If simple, economic gain is the sole motivating factor in man's behavior, how in hell do you explain a martyr willing to give up his life for an idea?"

A lot of this didn't turn up in the obits, and being privileged to have known this man some, I thought it would be good to put this to paper.