As a worker, the people in his office say, you could not find a man more dedicated than Louis Samia, executive director of CARE.

Samia was the first to arrive in the morning, the last to go home at night.

He kept two suitcases packed -- one for emergencies in tropical climates; one for cold climates. He worked on planes and when abroad sent taped reports to his secretary.

No detail was too small. When a field worker in India was sent to Bangladesh, he intervened to make sure that the man's child would attend the proper boarding school and saw to it that CARE picked up the expenses.

Thus is came as a shock some weeks ago when the people at CARE headquarters here were told what was publicly learned only this week -- that Samia, who had been with CARE for 33 years until his resignation this past summer, was under investigation for allegedly embezzling $100,000. In particular, he is being investigated for allegedly charging the charity for fund-raising expenses for at least five years for a group that picked up its own expenses.

"He told me he loved CARE, he said it was the one thing he loved in life," said CARE President Wallace Campbell. ". . . When I heard about this, I was sick."

There has been no indictment, and the Manhattan district attorney's office refuses to comment on the case other than to say that a preliminary investigation is under way. Attorneys for Samia and CARE acknowledge that an investigation is going on, and CARE spokesmen say that Samia is their only staff suspect.

In addition to the money, the loss of which has been covered by a bond, and the possibility that CARE fund-raising activities may be adversely affected, something else has rattled CARE workers here -- a feeling that a special trust or commitment has been betrayed.

"People are working here for salaries below what they could get in the real world because they believe in what they're doing," said assistant executive director Ron Burkard, who started out as a CARE field representative 17 years ago at $3,500 a year. "We have tremendous respect and credibility in the developing world . . . Over 20 percent of the staff had worked for the Peace Corps. To have something like this happen has left everyone terribly depressed."

"It's a real melting pot here," said another high-level staff member, "very committed people from all sorts of backgrounds working for one-third of what they'd get in the outside world. It's not a place you'd look for venality."

CARE (Cooperative for American Relief Everywhere) is a charity, a $200-million-a-year international aid and development organization, which since 1946 has distributed more than $1.5 billion in more than 30 countries.

Its national headquarters here is decorated with pictures of road construction in Sierra Leone and an agricultural program in Bangladesh. The walls of the board room are covered with plaques written in many alphabets. "In appreciation of the electrification of four villages in Korea . . ." "In appreciation from the Indonesian Orthopedic Association," they read.

CARE's offices, in an old brewery, are in midtown Manhattan. The view from the executive director's office, which Samia inhabited in his $47,500-a-year job, is drab -- a Con Ed plant across the street, an animal shelter to the side.

There were perks: travel, meetings with high-level government people.

From what CARE people say, Samia, 56, a sharp dresser with a thin mustache who smoked long cigarettes, enjoyed those perks.

He savored prestige. He was upset when visiting dignitaries were not introduced to him first, said CARE deputy director Floyd Cregger. He enjoyed the privileges of executive life.

"He liked to live well," said CARE president Campbell. "Whenever I came to New York we'd eat in good restaurants. He liked playing host, he liked being nice to people; he was very outgoing, a hail-fellow-well-met type. . . . The only odd thing I remember, he always insisted on paying with cash."

That, of course, is hindsight speaking.

On the job, Samia, a married suburbanite with three children, was viewed without suspicion.

He worked too hard to ever be suspect. The son of Lebanese immigrants, Samia had joined CARE out of the armed forces, as a bookkeeper. i

His CARE biography says that it was the "suffering of hungry people Mr. Samia witnessed during World War II which made him determined to follow a humanitarian career," and that he had volunteered to work two weeks for the organization without pay.

Coworkers in later years have no stories about this aspect of Samia; they do not recall having seen him emotionally upset by what he saw in the field, though this is not uncommon, they stressed, among veteran poverty workers. But they repeatedly speak, of Samia's drive.

"You know the definition of a workaholic, he works all the time whether there's work to do or not," said Campbell. "I guess you could say that was Lou. It was like he was married to the job, he was very ambitious, very anxious to get ahead; well, he came out of the Army with nothing, he went to night school, he helped make the organization what it is. He had great skills in the financial field."

Samia rose through the ranks: director of finance, deputy executive director. There were people in the agency who disliked him for his occasional bursts of temper; those who liked him for the way he helped staffers with income tax problems.

The board of directors thought enough of his services to appoint him executive director in April 1979 after interviewing more than 70 people. Thirteen months later, reportedly before the board had heard of any financial irregularities, they asked him to resign. The problem, people in CARE say, was "differences in managerial style" between Samia and the board.

"He felt he had to do all the things he had done before and be executive director at the same time," said Campbell. "He felt he had to run the whole organization himself -- he found it hard to delegate responsibility."

CARE's board of directors asked for his resignation and Samia complied, citing "personal reasons." Several weeks later through an outside tip, CARE learned of the misappropriations. According to Campbell, CARE went first to Samia's attorney and then took the matter to the district attorney.

Speaking of the scandal's impact on CARE, Campbell and Cregger say that while there may be some ripples, they are planning no advertising to offset them. "It's against our policy to pay for any kind of media coverage," said Cregger, "so we don't have any intention of a massive campaign to tell people how great we are . . . Despite the failings of one individual, we still feel we're a tremendous organization . . . We can hold our head up high."

"People are always shaken up when there is something like this, particularly in an organization with a reputation for long public service," said Campbell. "And of course we hate to see anybody steal from the children."