Hal Lyon was an unlikely bureaucrat.

As director of federal programs for gifted and talented children, he sported beads and long hair during the Nixon administration. A psychologist with a doctorate in education, Lyon wrote books that reveal the most intimate details of his sexuality. He led workshops at Esalen Institute, the Big Sur retreat known for its emphasis on self-awareness and sexual liberation. His friends include humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers and folksinger John Denver.

But last month, Harold Clifford Lyon Jr., 46, the unlikely bureaucrat, was cast in what his friends said is an even more unlikely role: Arlington police charged him with prostitution and pimping.

Police said Lyon and a woman allegedly placed a classified ad in Met Personals, a Washington sex-oriented tabloid, offering the services of a "beautiful, petite . . . young lady" who "models submissively with boyfriend or alone" for "sincere, generous, gentle people."

Arrested later in an undercover operation, Lyon is charged with agreeing to commit oral sodomy on an undercover male police officer for money and offering the officer the sexual services of a 27-year-old woman who police charged with prostitution.

Lyon, who would face a maximum 32-year prison term if he is convicted, pleaded innocent and is free on $5,000 bail. He has been notified that the Department of Education, where he is responsible for programs affecting more than 2 million children and a $6 million budget, plans to suspend him indefinitely without pay. In seclusion at his home outside Frederick, Md., he declined to be interviewed.

"I find the whole thing incredible," said Rogers, the dean of humanistic psychology who wrote the foreword to Lyon's first book, "Learning To Feel, Feeling to Learn," and his second, an autobiography entitled, "It's Me and I'm Here!"

"The Hal Lyon I know is a very competent, sensitive, intelligent person," Rogers said. "It's just very hard to imagine there's any truth to this."

No one disputes that Hal Lyon is an unorthodox $50,000-a-year government official with a casual management style. Several of his former bosses said they wanted to remove Lyon from his job. But Lyon survived, remaining throughout his long career a GSl5, the pay grade at which he was hired in l967.

Nor does anyone dispute Lyon's sexual views are unconventional; his books make it clear that sexual freedom is his personal crusade. But even those who share his views said that if the charges against him are true, the respected and successful Hal Lyon crossed the line from sexual experimentation to sexual exploitation. If the charges are not true, they said, Lyon is a victim of overzealous police trapping a man who simply does not share traditional moral standards.

"They're trying to portray this guy as a satyr . . . " said his Washington attorney John Karr. "Hal Lyon is, at this point, destroyed."

The portrait of Lyon that emerges from interviews with his friends and coworkers and from his books is that of a man who underwent a metamorphosis from stiff-backed, gung-ho West Point cadet to laid-back disciple of the sexual counterculture.

"Hal was sort of like the George Plimpton of sex," said Tom Block, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who became Lyon's friend when they were stationed in Korea in 1960. "He thought he had to experience everything in life that was available in order to write about it."

The older of two sons of an Army colonel, Lyon graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in l958. After that came training as an elite Army Ranger, courses in guerilla warfare and a seven-year career as a promising young officer.

"Hal was always a pretty academic type, quiet, a sort of pseudointellectual," said Rep. Adam Benjamin (R-Ind.), who lived in the same dormitory at West Point and edited The Pointer magazine with him. "He spread himself pretty thin." Lyon played intramural football, earned a letter in track, was secretary of the German club and was a member of the skeet, hunting, and fishing clubs and the debate team.

"Hal was an overachiever, he worked 99 percent harder than a lot of others," said Lt. Col. Frank Wascowitz, who roomed with Lyon at the academy. "Even though he looked like a plucked chicken, he would date some of the best-looking women you ever saw. We could never figure out how he did it."

Lyon graduated from West Point in the middle of his class and set out, in Army parlance, to get his ticket punched: make rank, get the right assignments and scramble up the Army's career ladder.

"I spent most of my life," wrote Lyon in one of his books, "being an overachiever, climbing everyone else's ladders to get their approval."

In l965 his climb ended abruptly. While stationed in Washington, working toward a masters degree at George Washington University and preparing to teach psychology at West Point, Lyon was arrested twice in Alexandria on pornography-related charges that were later dismissed.

In a chapter in one of his books entitled "The Fuller-Brush-Man Crisis," Lyon wrote that while earning extra money as a door-to-door Fuller Brush salesman, "I learned that there are, indeed, many frustrated, lonely homebound women . . . who welcome attention from any male willing enough to talk." To one of these women, Lyon wrote, he showed, at her request, "a risque little comic book . . . depicting an amorous Fuller Brush man."

Several weeks later, the Alexandria police arrested him for possession of obscene items. Days later, his first wife left him, taking their two young sons.

"Between selling Fuller Brushes and writing papers for psychology classes," he wrote of that period, "I would reward myself by clandestinely writing letters to couples and single girls whose addresses I found in a little 'swingers' magazine."

Lyon made the mistake of sending a Richmond postal inspector four nude photographs of himself. He was arrested by federal officials on another pornography-related charge. Later that year, Captain Lyon left the Army with an honorable discharge.

"It was a big blow to his ego," recalled Block, "because it was the first time he hadn't succeeded at something."

Lyon then began a second career, this one in education. Armed with his masters degree in public administration, he became special assistant to the president of Ohio University. From there he moved to the Office of Education, served on a White House Task Force on Education of the Gifted and spent a year at the University of Massachusetts, where he earned a doctorate in humanistic education.

It was in Amherst, a bucolic Western Massachusetts town nestled in the Berkshires with a large, active counterculture community, that Lyon discovered the '60s. At that time, the university's education school was enjoying a brief wave of celebrity because of its liberal admissions policy and free-wheeling atmosphere.

"A beautiful year of self-discovery," is how Lyon described his time there. After completing work on his doctorate, he went to Esalen, where he led sensitivity training workshops. He married a divorced psychologist with five children, tried rolfing -- a body massage therapy -- natural foods, meditation, Eastern mysticism, Gestalt therapy, encounter groups and est assertiveness training therapy.

He became a member of the est advisory board with John Denver, who wrote the foreword to his third book, "Tenderness Is Strength." In l972 Lyon became chief of the newly created federal program for gifted children.

"Hal was the kind of guy who used to run conferences and know people," recalled Robert Binswanger, a former official at the Office of Education and now a vice chancellor at the University of Maine. "He was clearly odd but there was no question that he was bright." In academic circles, however, he developed a reputation as more promoter than scholar.

"Hal was a good PR guy for the gifted office," said Abraham Tannenbaum, a professor of special education at Columbia University. "He was the sort of breezy, sociable person more interested in the promotional side of his work than the scholarly, academic or professional side."

Others had problems with Lyon. "Hal is a very egocentric person who always seemed to be into his own thing," said Fred Weintraub, an assistant director of the Reston-based Council for Exceptional Children. "He reminded me of what I went through in the Sixties. At one conference I remembered that he blew up balloons and had all these people bat them around the room." That was supposed to develop self-awareness, Weintraub said.

"Hal Lyon was a mixed bag . . . He was very bright, very creative, but he wasn't very effective," said Perry Bates, former deputy assistant secretary of Education and now a professor at the University of Michigan. " . . . He had a long history of people being unhappy with him or trying to get rid of him. A lot of people complained privately about him but few would do it publicly."

To his friend, Tom Block, Lyon seemed to be changing. "Hal had all the appearances of someone going through male menopause," he said. "In the past 18 months he had seemed to become superficial and unreliable. He would do things like say, 'I'll be over at eight' and then he wouldn't show up 'til 12 and he'd say, 'Oh, I got tied up,' and you were supposed to understand. I think he felt trapped -- in a job and in a family -- and resented the responsibilities."

"Hal is a very creative, energetic, persuasive guy, but he doesn't like the drudgery of carrying things out . . . Hal once asked me to help him figure out a budget. I did, but later I found out he didn't take my advice."

Lyon's attorney, Karr, said Lyon wasn't having financial difficulties. "Sure, they paid the mortgage on the 10th instead of the first," he said. "But Lyon was making $50,000. You make it reach."

Whatever personal problems Lyon may have been having, Karr said, are irrelevant compared to the real issue: that Lyon is being prosecuted for being an unconventional person with unconventional morals.

"I think what they are doing is barbaric," said Dennis Sobin, Met Personals publisher and a founder of the Playground, a Southeast Washington sex club. "I guess it's easier to arrest people who advertise in Met Personals than bank robbers. After all, people who answer our ads don't carry guns."

Police have not charged Lyon with answering ads, but with running a sex-for-money scheme.

Arlington vice detectives Thomas Wise and David Green and assistant commonwealth's attorney David Cayer gave the following account of events surrounding Lyon's arrest: Several weeks before he was arrested, the detectives answered a Met Personals classified ad they said was placed by Lyon and a woman. It advertised the photographic modeling services of "Susanna."

Posing as customers seeking to make a pornographic movie, police said they arranged on Oct. 2 for "Susanna" to come to an efficiency apartment in Arlington that police were using in an undercover operation. Police said she turned out to be 27-year-old Susanna McIntyre, the wife of Kevin-John McIntyre, 37, a State Department official who accompanied her to the apartment.

Police said they paid the McIntyres $300 to film the couple having intercourse. The McIntyres were then arrested and charged with sodomy and prostitution. Police said Susanna McIntyre told them she was working as a prostitute for a man she knew as "Rod" or "Hal," giving him about 20 percent of her earnings. The McIntyres are free on bond and have not yet entered a plea to the charges, according to their lawyers who declined further comment. Their court date is set for Jan. 26, one week after Lyon's trial.

Susanna McIntyre, police said, agreed to cooperate with them, and 12 days later she called Lyon and arranged to have him meet her at the undercover apartment. Police said that while Wise hid in a closet and Green listened to their conversation, which was being taped, Lyon presented Susanna McIntyre with a stack of letters requesting sexual services and nude photographs and told her she could make $30,000 a year doing nude modeling.

Green said he then entered the apartment posing as a customer. He told Lyon he was bisexual and, police said, Lyon then agreed to perform oral sodomy in exchange for money and offered the sexual services of Susanna McIntyre. Green said he paid Lyon $200 and then arrested him.

Police said they also seized sexual paraphernalia Lyon had brought with him, a camera, photographs showing a woman having sex with a dog, a list containing the names of more than 50 people, three of whom police said have since been arrested on prostitution charges, and 75 letters to a post office box from people seeking to purchase sexually suggestive films and photographs.

Lyon's attorney declined to comment on the account provided by authorities. He denied the charges and pointed out that the alleged proposition and the exchange of money are not recorded on tape. "There's a lot of dirty talk, but so what?" said Karr. "You'd think that if they've got the place wired and someone is hiding in the closet they would be sure to get illegal actions on tape. Hal Lyon was having an affair with Susanna. He wasn't getting any money for it. Who cares what they were doing as long as it involves consenting adults who aren't hurting anyone?"