"I would not recognize myself as a man of courage. I would prefer to speak in terms of the values we are defending. . . . The patriot and the dissenter may inhabit the same heart. We are not really disunited; we are merely enjoying our freedoms. Any sectional cleavages should merely spur us to greater exertions in building bridges of understanding."

WHAT BROOKS HAYS did not recognize about himself--that he was a man of extraordinary courage--was never more nationally apparent than when he exerted himself fearlessly as a builder of those "bridges of understanding" in 1957--a southern congressman who stood up for racial moderation in the thick of a bitter clash over the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. Mr. Hays, who died Monday in Chevy Chase at the age of 83, knowingly risked-- and then suffered--political defeat the following year at the hands of a segregationist write-in candidate. But he never lost the respect of all who appreciated his promotion of good will, his sponsorship of humanitarian causes and his contributions to public service.

For 16 years before that defeat, Mr. Hays had represented the people of the 5th District of Arkansas with an unflagging commitment to racial understanding. When the then-governor of the state, Orval E. Faubus, ordered the Arkansas National Guard to block school desegregation, President Eisenhower responded by ordering U.S. troops to enforce desegregation orders. Mr. Hays arranged a meeting between the two and, though it proved fruitless, continued to speak out, refusing to yield to transient passions if it meant deserting his convictions.

His compassion extended to people everywhere-- around the world, through his support for foreign aid, for UNRRA and aid to postwar Great Britain --and right here in the District of Columbia, through his early and vigorous support for home rule. In 1949 Mr. Hays made a special appeal for the District, in an unscheduled appearance before an Arkansas Democratic colleague who headed the House District Judiciary subcommittee and who opposed home rule. "You would get democratic government," said Mr. Hays, "and you would prove to the world that we really believe in government by the consent of the governed."

Mr. Hays was also a relentless raconteur whose anecdotes, yarns and jabs at himself knew no match. A deeply religious man, he once explained that he was a "great believer in ecumenism" because "the evils in the world are too much even for the southern Baptists to deal with."

We said it once in this space 17 years ago, when Brooks Hays left official Washington for a position at Rutgers University, and we repeat it now: He was one of the gentlest spirits in this hard-boiled town-- a steadfast and courageous man.