Brooks Hays of Arkansas was a wispy, balding man who was a presence in Washington for almost half of his 83 years--a favorite character, a beloved storyteller and a moral force of almost unequaled dimension, from his election to the House in 1942 until his death last month.

His is an appropriate story for Thanksgiving week, because it is an authentically American tale of high good humor and remarkable courage. He was born in London--"London, Hope County, Arkansas," as Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas reminded the Senate in his eulogy. He became that familiar American character, the small-town lawyer and Southern Baptist deacon.

He came to Congress at the age of 44 and left it in defeat at age 60 to take up a second career as a White House aide, teacher, writer and leader of his church.

When he died, there were only 20 members in the House who had served with him. But listening to the tales told of him when the House memorialized him earlier this month, it was clear that Brooks Hays had become one of the enduring and even mythical figures of the Congress which, like all institutions, craves its heroes and legends.

Much of the legend is based on his storytelling, his way with an anecdote. Congress is a body of raconteurs, but few have been able to do with a story what Hays could do: create characters and scenes you could see and feel, and slip in a telling point of view while your guard was down.

Some of his lines were so perfect you just wanted to marvel. When he was serving on the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, the Russians were pressing for the admission of Outer Mongolia as a separate nation. "Fair enough," Hays said, "if the U.N. will also admit Texas and call it Outer Arkansas."

His courage was demonstrated most clearly by the events that brought him defeat. As the congressman from Little Rock and a moderate on racial issues, Hays sought to mediate the conflict between Arkansas Gov. Orval E. Faubus and the federal authorities over the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock Central High School. He managed to bring Faubus and President Eisenhower together for a meeting that fleetingly raised hopes, but ultimately failed to avert the violence and the dispatch of federal troops.

A year later, in 1958, Faubus turned on Hays and supported a segregationist write-in candidate, who defeated the congressman with a well-executed sneak attack.

Hays' loss shocked and shamed his home city and the Congress in which he served. In both arenas, it served to strengthen the resolve of those who shared his tolerant and moderate views.

The defeat did not shock him. As Billy Graham said at a testimonial dinner for Hays a month after his defeat, "Little Rock realizes it has made a tragic mistake . . . but that doesn't dismay our friend. . . . Congressman Hays' good humor, common sense and integrity will take him through."

And so they did, for another 23 years of a life that left a permanent mark on the institutional memory of Congress and his church and of the institutions he founded and inspired. They ranged from the Former Members of Congress Association to the Close-Up Foundation, which brings hundreds of young people to Washington each year for a firsthand view of their government.

If Congress is to remain an institution to which alumni can return with pride and which youngsters can view without cynicism, today's lawmakers will need the qualities Brooks Hays exemplified.

They could find no better guide than the words Hays himself spoke at that dinner in 1958.

"I have cheerfully accepted several defeats, because I acknowledge the principle of majority rule," he said. "That rule will be frustrated, however, unless the people are given an opportunity to secure and deliberate upon the facts and the issues. . . .

"And throughout the structure of popular government, there must be such respect for the minority that public policy is built on wisdom and justice in representative functions, not on the sophistry that the majority's judgment is always wise and best for the people.

"In the 1958 campaigning," this wise and just politician said, "I was not trying to ride a popular idea. I was trying to popularize an idea that had become so much a part of me I could not rid myself of it if I had tried."

Wherever a politician can speak honestly of himself or herself in those terms, the spirit of Brooks Hays will live.