Robert Marovelli remembers taping his father's chest to help him breathe easier so that he could make it back to the Pennsylvania coal mine on time for one more shift. "If he was late, he didn't get paid. . . . I guess I always wanted a job with some kind of sick leave and security," Marovelli said.

Marovelli has that security now, and more besides. He was one of the Interior Department's top 50 bureaucrats who were honored recently by Secretary Cecil D. Andrus with performance bonuses up to 20 percent of their annual salaries.

"If there's money on the table, I'll go after it. I was a miner so the drive is there . . . . I'm a competitor and that's how I got where I am," said Marovelli, director of the mineral health safety technology division of the Bureau of Mines. One of only four men to receive the top award of $9,500, he thinks he deserved it, as do most of the other recipients.

"I was tickled to get it . . . . My program is one of the more successful research and development efforts in the government," he said.

Neither major scandal nor national stardom has touched any of the 50 members of the Senior Executive Service -- all men -- at Interior who were ranked the best in the business by their peers and their bosses.After being judged to have more than fulfilled their yearly performance agreements, they were reviewed and reviewed again by a series of boards, ranked and finally named by Andrus.

Of the department's 294 senior executives, 50, or 17 percent, received bonuses. In an extensive series of interviews, supervisors and employes alike praised the selection process as open, honest and generally satisfactory, free of overt political shading. "Next time we'll have more measurable goals, to know more concretely what we're rating people on," said Keith Higginson, commissioner of water and power resources.

But where some of the award winners see themselves as innovative, creative managers who are the unsung heroes of many complex battles, their critics occasionally see plodding paper-pushers who are just doing a job.

"They're all good men but I'm not sure that any of them have done anything beyond what you'd expect of an effective and efficient public servant," said Louis S. Clapper, National Wildlife Federation vice president for national affairs. The phrase "old-line bureaucrat" recurred frequently among evaluations of the prize winners from their colleagues and nongovernment adversaries and friends, but many noted that characterizing them was difficult.

"It's hard for people on the outside to know much about what somebody's doing unless they screw up in some major way," said Jonathan Lash of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which routinely hauls the Interior Department into court.

At the same time, Clapper had only praise for Kenneth E. Black, Atlanta regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service and one of the top four winners. Cited for his talent at coordinating conflicting groups, Black led a major study of migrating fish habits and set up several state cooperative agreements. "He's a heck of a good man. If anybody deserves that kind of bonus, he does," said Clapper.

The bureaucrats themselves had some mixed feelings about the awards, the first attempt by the new Office of Personnel Management to provide incentives in a way roughly paralleling the bonus awards of private industry.

"I'm gratified, but I don't know that my motivation is that much greater with it than it was before," said Theodore C. Krenzke, director of Indian services and acting deputy commissioner at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

A social worker who came up through 22 years of service in Montana, Alaska and North Carolina, he won the $9,500 bonus, he said, not because of any spectacular thing he did but because "just at this time when there's been a change in the BIA leadership, I've provided some of the direction."

His supervisors cited him for his handling of recurring factional disputes and power struggles among tribal leaders, for boosting self-determination training, and for strengthening the police and judicial systems on Indian lands. "There are 17,000 Indian kids in college now. I can see a difference," Krenzke said.

The fourth big bonus winner was William L. Kendig, deputy assistant secretary for policy, budget and administration. Responsible for a $2 billion procurement budget involving 1,400 persons, he was recognized for the contract monitoring and coordinating system he set up over the past five years, according to his superior, Assistant Secretary Larry Meierotto. Kendig preferred Interior to his former administrative work at Procter & Gamble, Price Waterhouse, and the University of Maryland.

The policy office at Interior won seven of the 50 bonus awards, second only to the Geological Survey, which had 12. The Office of Surface Mining and the Fish and Wildlife Service each had three winners among the top 12, who all received more than $6,000.

One of the more controversial honorees is Clifford I. Barrett, assistant commissioner for planning and operations in the Water and Power Resources Service, the old Bureau of Reclamation. He received $7,700 for cutting planning time and streamlining project construction while negotiating several water sales contracts involving federal properties.

"He's a heavy infighter, one of the last of the old-line Reclamation bureaucrats," said Edward Osann of the National Wildlife Federation's water project review. Several of Barrett's contracts were "sweetheart deals" that underpriced scarce western water resources, Osann charged. "I can't imagine why he got an award unless it was for survivability," he said.

Barrett, who at 47 has 25 years with the government, said he resented the criticism. "I think I'm pretty moderate. I've been one of the leaders in bringing about policy reform to bring the service more into the environmental ethic," he said. "I guess controversy goes with the territory."

Barrett's boss, Commissioner Higginson, said Barrett's work streamlining the entire project planning process was "an accomplishment which more than compensates for his award."

Michael Spear, on the other hand, has what amounts to an environmentalist fan club. As associate director of environment for the Fish and Wildlife Service, he was awarded a $7,700 bonus for rushing out a wildlife protection manual credited with saving hundreds of animals in the wake of the Mount St. Helens volcanic eruptions in Washington state. Earlier he converted 1,000 acres of idle government land to a wildlife refuge. "He's just dynamite," said the Wildlife Federation's Pat Parenteau.

Paul Reeves has been "a good, solid, tough bargainer" in his job as deputy director of the Office of Surface Mining and has been "very committed to the program" of pushing reclamation enforcement, according to Lash of the NRDC. His supervisors cited his efforts to boost equal employment opportunities at OSM in awarding him a $7,200 bonus.

Alan Powers of Interior's policy office drew up the recently announced five-year oil lands leasing program for the outer continental shelf and was awarded $7,200 for his direction of staff work on that program. "The potential for disaster was very great there," said Meierotto, "but there were no slippages in the schedule and it was largely because of Powers' efforts."

OSM's Edgar Imhoff, director of the Indianapolis regional office, was awarded $8,000 for his reclamation and affirmative action work, while the agency's Kansas City regional director, Raymond L. Lowrie, took home an extra $7,500 for cutting complaint response time and boosting compliance rates among mines in his area.

Joseph Brown, regional director of the Atlanta office of the National Park Service, was awarded $7,700 for setting up 21 parkland acquisitions. F. Eugene Hester got an extra $7,700 for being "the principal mover of Civil Service Reform activity" within the Fish and Wildlife Service, where he is associate director for research, the OPM summary said, and Robert Buffington, Idaho director for the Bureau of Land Management, received $7,500 for smoothing relationships with local ranchers.

The other 37 honorees at the Interior Department, all of whom received up to $6,000, were: John L. Fulbright, director, Office of Youth Programs, Office of the Secretary. Wesley Sasaki, chief, Division of Budget Operations, Policy, Budget and Administration. Galen L. Buterbaugh, associate director, Fisheries Resources. Cleo F. Layton, staff assistant to assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. Francis E. Brantley, director, Division of Production/Consumption Data Collection, Bureau of Mines. Carl C. Close, assistant director, State and Federal Programs, Office of Surface Mining. Doyle G. Frederick, associate director, Geological Survey. George Gryc, chief, Office of National Petroleum Reserve, Geological Survey. Lowell G. Hammons, regional conservation manager, Geological Survey. Michael L. Kaas, director, Minerals Information Systems, Bureau of Mines. Rupert B. Southard Jr., chief, National Mapping, Geological Survey. Robert I. Tilling, chief, Office of Geochemistry and Geophysics, Geological Survey. Robert W. Beuley, assistant inspector general (audit), Office of the Secretary. William L. Carpenter, director, Office of Administrative Services, Policy, Budget and Administration. Joseph W. Gorrell, deputy director, Office of Budget, Policy, Budget and Administration. H. Theodore Heintz Jr., assistant director, Studies, Policy, Budget and Administration. Larry M. Lane, deputy director, Office of Personnel, Policy, Budget and Administration. Donald D. Anderson, assistant commissioner, Administration, Water and Power Resources. James D. Brown, chief, Division of Design, Water and Power Resources. Howard J. Cohan, chief, Division of General Research, Water and Power Resources. Lester W. Lloyd Jr., regional director (Boise), Water and Power Resource Services. Arnold E. Petty, deputy director services, Bureau of Land Management. Howard Chapman, regional director (San Francisco), National Park Service. Ira J. Hutchison, deputy director, National Park Service. William J. Finale, area director (Sacramento), Bureau of Indian Affairs. Frederick N. Ferguson, deputy solicitor, Office of the Solicitor. John Little Jr., associate solicitor (energy and resources), Office of the Solicitor. Raymond F. Sanford, regional solicitor (Tulsa), Office of the Solicitor. Lawrence Borgerding, chief, Mid-Continent Mapping Center, Geological Survey. Alfred Clebsch Jr., regional hydrologist, Geological Survey. Philip Cohen, chief hydrologist, Geological Survey. Gordon P. Eaton, associate chief geologist, Geological Survey. Edmund J. Grant, associate director for Administration, Geological Survey. Ralph C. Kirby, director, Division of Minerals Resource Technology, Mines. Russell H. Langford, associate chief hydrologist, Geological Survey. James Paone, director, Division of Mineral Land Assessment, Bureau of Mines. Robert L. Rious, deputy division chief for Offshore Mineral Regulation, Geological Survey.