They were the "Little Rock Nine," Arkansas teen-agers who unexpectedly found themselves leading characters in a chapter of American history 25 years ago when they were the first black students to desegregate Central High School.

They are graying and approaching middle age now, have children in high school themselves and are, for the most part, engaged in successful careers in far-flung places. But when seven of them gathered here today for their first reunion, one thing that was clear is that the memories of those turbulent years still linger and are sharp and bittersweet.

Jefferson Thomas, a Defense Department supervisor in Los Angeles, recalled moving away from Little Rock the day after graduation because his family had been ruined, unable to get work.

Carlotta Walls, now a real estate broker in Fresno, Calif., for years would not talk about it with her children, allowing them only with reluctance to see a fictionalized television account last year. Afterwards, she was sorry. Her little boy became angry at white people for the first time. He had never expressed those feelings before.

Elizabeth Eckford became a worldwide symbol when she was separated from the group on the first day at Central High and faced alone screaming mobs and National Guard troops blocking her entry to the school. She still fights the memory of that moment. One of the two who did not attend and the only one to remain in Little Rock, she is still under a doctor's care.

Normal, attractive, youths who went to church on Sunday, minded their parents and made good grades in school, the Little Rock Nine were in the fall of 1957 propelled from a placid, tight-knit black community into the midst of a bitter national struggle.

President Eisenhower sent in Army troops after Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus defied the Supreme Court's order to desegregate the schools. But nightmarish days followed, days of taunts, threats, physical abuse and harassing phone calls when the black students went home at night.

I had known some of the story, watching from the sidelines. I was a kid too young to go to Central but excited by the sudden national spotlight shining on our once languid town. The Little Rock Nine were my friends, my neighbors and schoolmates.

I remember running down the streets each morning to watch as they traveled by military convoy to Central, feeling cheated as Iwent on off to the still-segregated junior high school. There was an aura around them. They were on television. They were stars. I envied them but it was not really until today that I understood the price they had paid--what it means to be part of history--on the inside looking out.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. arranged for the reunion today to be the centerpiece of its annual commemoration of the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation decision. Tracking the Little Rock Nine down was an arduous task.

Minnijean Brown Trickey, the one of the nine to be expelled from Central after she dumped a bowl of chili over the head of a taunting white student, was found living on a farm in Northern Canada, where her husband is a zoologist and she is involved in anti-nuclear, anti-war and conservation groups.

Gloria Ray Karlmark has lived for years in Brussels where she is a manager in a telecommunications firm and the founder and editor of a journal dealing with computers.

Terrence Roberts, always a straight-arrow and a Boy Scout kind of a boy, lives north of San Francisco, where he is the director of the mental health department of a hospital.

Ernest Green, the first of the group to graduate from Central, lives in Washington, where he was formerly an assistant Labor Department secretary in the Carter administration. Thelma Jean Mothershed Wair is a vocational counselor in East St. Louis, Ill.

"I think we all would have been successful irregardless of Central but that gave us an extra boost," said Green. "You come along at 14, 15 or 16 and get that much glare and that much focus and that much support early on in life, it's kind of difficult to turn around and not to do something."

But it is not an experience they would ever want to repeat or to have for their own children. In hindsight, as they recalled the threats,and the sheer fear, at times, they found it difficult to explain why they went through it all.

"I was taught that once you undertake whatever, you see it through to the end and I just felt I was going to have to make it, if I could stay alive," said Carlotta Walls LaNier.

Jefferson Thomas, said that for him, "the only accomplishment was that I stuck it out because the entire thing thing should not have been necessary. But Thomas speaks in slightly choked voice as he remembers what the experience did to his family.

"It destroyed the family base. No one could get employment, no insurance. There were just hanging around until I finished." When they left Little Rock the day after his graduation, he said, it was like a scene out of the "Grapes of Wrath"--"everything on top of the car and you move off."

Terrence Roberts believes the experience helped him positively to deal with problems of race.

"If I have a racist patient, I can look beyond that. The experience helped me sort through a lot of the surface junk to understand that people all face the very same kind of things in life--that is the challenge to growth and development."

Among the many well-wishers to greet the seven here today was a young black man, Roosevelt Thompson, who is now 20 years old but was not born at the time of the school crisis. He graduated from Central two years ago, was an honors student, all-state guard on the football team and student body president. He just finished his sophomore year at Yale. What he wanted to tell the seven, he said, was that their struggle had been worth it.