TO BE REGARDED as an elder statesman in a given field is impressive, but to have earned this status for a remarkably broad range of achievements in public service is rare. Colgate W. Darden Jr., who died in Norfolk on Tuesday at 84, held such rank in Virginia -- respected as a man of courage and principle who lifted the hearts and sights of the people he served.

Through an era that saw two world wars and then the awful homefront battles of Virginia's "massive resistance" to school desegregation, Mr. Darden -- lawyer, state legislator, member of Congress, governor, educator and United Nations delegate -- was a voice of reason with convictions that helped Virginia find its way to higher political and social ground.

It was Mr. Darden's own profound respect for education -- which he called the "engine of civilization" -- that led him to speak out forcefully against the state's scheme to close the public schools rather than to desegregate them. tThat appeal was all the more compelling at the time, because Mr. Darden was a product of southside Virginia who personally preferred separate schools; but he considered public education and respect for the law to be infinitely more important to preserve.

After a term as gonernor from 1941 to 1945, Mr. Darden became chancellor of the College of William and Mary and, a year later, was named president of the University of Virginia -- where he worked to improve the academic disciplines and minimize the restrictive social aspects of the institution. His efforts to democratize the university and broaden its student body stirred controversy, as did his recommendations to diminish the influence of fraternities on campus life.

But in 1966, when he was looking back on a public career that by then had already spanned four decades, Gov. Darden pointed to those years as university president as having been a "fabulously interesting journey." It was, as were all the other years before and since -- and because of them, Virginia is enriched with an important legacy.