It has been a month now since the college president vanished, apparently carrying out a secret plan of his own, leaving few clues other than credit card records of flights to Houston and San Diego and giving no indication that he plans to return. He left everything and everyone behind, his job, his home, his friends, his wife.

After 17 years, Jay Carsey ended his career as president of Charles County Community College with a two-sentence letter of resignation to his board of trustees. He left the college car in the parking lot at National Airport, with his checkbook, his umbrella and a copy of The New Yorker magazine in it. Maryland State Police, after an initial investigation revealed no sign of foul play, withdrew from the case. Sgt. William Boone said, "We came to the conclusion that it's a free country, and Dr. Carsey could go wherever he wants."

The police are the only ones who have stopped asking questions. The disappearance of the 47-year-old college president has become the talk of quiet, socially conservative Charles County, now becoming a Washington bedroom community, but once mostly tobacco country. He had been one of the most important men in the county. He held four degrees and the admiration of his neighbors and associates who called on him to join their clubs, sit on their boards, attend their luncheons and dinners and cocktail parties and address a variety of gatherings.

The absent Carsey has become something of a folk hero among some of the middle-aged men who sit around the bar at the Hawthorne Country Club, where the college president used to play golf and tennis. One joke: "If he'd chartered a plane, we all could have gone." But many women are troubled. As Katharyn Jones, Carsey's dedicated secretary of eight years, said, "If Jay could do it, any man could do it."

Everyone feels sorry for Carsey's wife of 14 years, the vibrant, red-haired Nancy, who, with her endlessly easygoing and congenial husband at her side, had been the life of so many parties. His disappearance has left her in a financial and legal mess, and she is trying desperately through private investigators to find him. "I'll liquidate everything and go wherever he wants," she said tearfully. Her guess is that he went to Sydney, Australia, a place he had visited and loved. Carsey hated winter; it is never cold in Sydney.

There are as many theories about why he did such a radical thing as there are people who knew him. The board of the college immediately ordered an audit of the books to determine if Carsey had taken any money. Not a penny was missing. No one could ever remember noticing Carsey depressed, but now they asked: Was he depressed, and if so why? Was he not depressed, but simply fed up with his responsibilities and obligations and escaping them on some faraway beach? Had the budget pressures that required riffing 27 persons at the college been too much? Did he have a secret life--a fund in a Swiss bank, another woman? One thoughtful colleague wondered if Carsey's amazing disappearance wasn't "perhaps the ultimate act of sanity."

On one point, everyone agrees: No one really knew who Jay Carsey was. Many people went to him with their problems, but no one ever heard about his problems and so it was assumed he had none. He never talked of anything personal, and few of his friends, if any, ever asked, or even wondered. "Jay was not an emotional person," Mrs. Carsey said. Everyone knew The College President, who lived with his wife in a 19th century Georgian-style mansion on 27 acres, but they had no idea about the human being who was there also and who, it seems obvious now, had come to find his life as a public man in Charles County intolerable.

There was despair in the brief note--postmarked from Washington on May 19, the last day anyone in the area heard from him--he sent his wife that said, according to Nancy Carsey, that he was close to emotional and physical collapse and did not want to drag her down with him. There was a poetic sense of the absurd in the Ronald and Nancy Reagan picture postcard--also postmarked Washington on May 19--he sent to his friend John Sine, the former English and philosophy teacher who had been the college dean as long as Carsey was president.

"John, Exit the Rainmaker. Good luck. J."

The Rainmaker is the name of a romantic comedy that Sine, who once dabbled in the directing and writing of plays, directed locally some 20 years ago, a production in which Carsey played a minor role. The play's engaging hero promised to bring rain to a parched town, and though he turned out to be a charlatan, his basic goodness inspired hope and love.

At the bottom of the postcard, Carsey wrote "Please handle." He and the 50-year-old Sine were an effective team who built the school up from a couple hundred students meeting in an abandoned Nike missile site to a respected, accredited college on a 173-acre campus, with branches in St. Mary's and Calvert counties and a total enrollment around 4,000. The president and the dean were known, respectively, as Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside: Carsey looked to the college's image and funding while the dean handled the day-to-day inner workings. "Please handle" was a line Carsey had written at the bottom of countless memoes he had sent to Sine.

"I miss him," Sine said in his office across the hall from that of the college president, where a secretary was packing Carsey's belongings--his books and papers, his framed photograph of his wife, his wooden statue of Don Quixote. "I think he wondered why he had been here so long. There was always some discussion of another college president who had just left. He'd say, 'Yeah, why have we been here this long?' We used to say that when it wasn't fun anymore we'd leave."

The college, like many public institutions, had suffered from budget problems in the last year or so, and administering it had become increasingly difficult. Twenty-seven positions were cut this year, which upset Carsey so much that he drove to the home of one of the RIFfed employes to tell her how bad he felt. The president, who had until recently been so successful at getting federal money for the college, became a convenient scapegoat for everyone from disgruntled faculty members to county commissioners. Carsey's secretary said, "He was such an intelligent person I thought maybe he wouldn't put up with all of this."

That Carsey had been a college president for 17 years was a feat in itself; the national average, according to Sine, is four years. David Riesman, the Harvard sociologist and author of "The Lonely Crowd," has been studying college presidents for three decades and said: "There are no lonelier people in the world than college presidents. They have the illusion of power but they don't really have power. They have prominence without significance. The faculty views them as failed academics . . . . It's an absolutely frightful job."

Nancy Carsey still says proudly that her husband was the youngest community college president in the country when he was appointed in 1965. The son of a small-town Texas bandleader, Carsey graduated from Texas A&M and came to the county in 1958 for a job as a chemical engineer at the Naval Ordnance Station at Indianhead. Evelyn Hungerford, who met him then and became one of his closest friends, remembers, "He lived in a trailer." After he and Nancy were married in 1968, they moved to the Watergate and then bought the mansion in Pomfret, which was splendidly decorated with artifacts from their travels all over the world. But Hungerford said, "Jay could live anywhere. He could live in a tent."

A self-effacing sort, he would have been the last one to tell a stranger that he was an important man, a $45,000-a-year (plus perks) college president whose talents as a consultant were also in demand. "He was slow and easy, a typical old shoe," said Hungerford. He was known as Uncle Jay, low-key, dependable, predictable Uncle Jay. Wistfully now, Hungerford recalls, "Uncle Jay was always there. He always did what the rest of us wanted to do. He never thought of himself personally. He was a very giving man."

Whenever and wherever he was invited, he always went. "He never said no," Hungerford said. He hated friction and would, his colleagues say, avoid confrontation at all costs. Flight was perhaps his only solution. As Joan Dent, wife of a Charles County commissioner, said, "If he had said he didn't want to be college president anymore, people would have talked him out of it. They would have said, 'Jay, take a vacation.' "

Nancy Carsey says her husband must have been deeply depressed to take such a drastic step. She said he was having trouble with his eyesight--one doctor had told him he might lose vision in one eye--and with his back. She said he had been upset by the recent death of a friend. And she said he had become increasingly worried about the college. "He had always been all things to all people," she said. "I thought we had a great marriage. My world was built around him, and his around me, I thought . . . . I thought I was his best friend. How could this be in him and me not know it?" She says she asked that question of a male friend and was startled by his reply. "He said, 'My wife doesn't know half of what's inside me.' "

The last she saw of her husband was on the morning of May 19, five days before graduation. He left the house shortly before 8. He had an 11:15 appointment with an orthodontist in Clinton, a 2 o'clock budget meeting, a 4 o'clock memorial garden dedication, a 5 o'clock meeting with the facilities director. He and Nancy were expected that night at a political fundraiser at the American Legion Hall. "He said he might have time to come by the house around noon for a bite to eat," she said. "I had fixed lunch. He always called in. I'm waiting and waiting and waiting, but he never called."

His secretary, who was accustomed to Carsey's calling in several times daily from various business appointments, which could have been anywhere from St. Mary's County to Washington, heard from him about 11. "He asked me to cancel his dental appointment," Katharyn Jones said. "He said he might be a little late for the 2 o'clock meeting." That afternoon the secretary of one of Carsey's friends in Washington called Jones. "She said that Jay had tried to call me and couldn't get through. He had left a message that he was going to Philadelphia on a family emergency."

"I couldn't understand why Philadelphia," Mrs. Carsey said. "Jay had no family in Philadelphia."

The next morning Carsey's brief messages, all handwritten and postmarked May 19 from Washington, were received. To Louis Jenkins, president of the college board of trustees, he wrote: "Louis--Effective 15 May 1982 I resign as President. I am proud of what I have accomplished but it is time for new leadership. JN Carsey."

The college treasurer received a letter saying the college car was at National Airport, with the keys in it (the airport parking ticket found with the car indicated that it had entered the lot at 11:45 a.m. the day before). John Sine got his tantalizing postcard. Mrs. Carsey said that her message, besides indicating that her husband felt under a great strain, indicated that he had taken the cash--a substantial amount, she said--and that the assets and liabilities of the estate belonged to her. He signed it simply "J," but failed to get it notarized, which has caused problems for Mrs. Casey, a former Prince George's County school principal who has a doctorate in education and is now searching for a job to pay the bills that Jay had always paid. "He always took care of everything," she said. "He spoiled me rotten."

Her note also indicated that Carsey had left her a tape on his desk at home. A friend who listened to the tape, which was concerned solely with financial matters, commented incredulously, "It was completely impersonal. You would have thought he was talking to a bunch of bankers." Mrs. Carsey said, "He said that he had accumulated leave and benefits at the college and that these would sustain me until I found work. He said he had taken an American Express card and would charge heavily for a few days and then throw it out." The credit card bills show purchases of luggage and clothing in Washington and Houston. Mrs. Carsey's last bill shows that on May 20 her husband bought a plane ticket from Houston to San Diego and spent a night in a hotel there. "If I could just find him and talk to him," she said. "I want to tell him how much he is loved and how much I need him. I desperately need him."

She said that the Monday after he disappeared his parents, who are elderly and in poor health, received a letter from their son at their home in a small town in Texas. "He told them to cut him out of their will immediately, that he was disappearing and that he was sorry to cause them pain in their later years," she said. "That terrified me. It sounded so final."

The weekend before he left had been a typical one--"a wonderful weekend," Mrs. Carsey says, incredulous that it could be followed by such an awful event. Her husband spent most of Saturday at a meeting of the Accokeek Foundation, a historical group of which he was president. That night he and his wife attended the wedding reception of the daughter of a Maryland state senator. "We danced, we partied, we saw everyone," Mrs. Carsey said. The date was May 15, the date of Carsey's resignation, and Louis Jenkins, who was also at the wedding, comments with a trace of irony, "He was more relaxed than I'd seen him in the last year or so." On Sunday the Carsey's attended a meeting of the Charles County Garden Club, of which Mrs. Carsey is program chairman. Carsey, in typical fashion, arrived early to help set up and stayed afterward to help clean up.

Two days after Carsey's disappearance the college trustees appointed Dean Sine acting administrator. Jenkins, the affable former prosecutor who has been president of the board for 12 years, said, "If you'd told me that Wednesday that Jay was going to do this, I would have said, 'My God, you're stark, raving mad'. . . These are things you read about happening in New York, Kalamazoo, Walla Walla, but not here."

And as of June 17, Jay Carsey is an ex-college president. The board gave the job to John Sine, whom Carsey appointed dean 17 years ago. Sine, a contemplative man whose office bookcase is filled with the works of T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner and Herman Melville, has reflected long and hard on the disappearance of his friend and colleague. He has many ideas, but no answers and wonders if people, in their bafflement, aren't perhaps asking the wrong questions. Perhaps, he suggests, the question is not so much "Why did he do it?" as "What keeps people from doing it more frequently?"