It used to be that, whenever my office phone rang at 7:15 a.m., I'd know before I answered that it was one of three people.

Most likely, it would be a reader with a complaint about delivery of the newspaper. I'd tell the caller, "Hey, they throw my Post in a puddle, too, and I work here." If the caller didn't get his paper any faster or any drier by talking to me, he'd at least feel better most of the time.

Sometimes the caller would be Uncle Joe. You have to understand about Uncle Joe. He isn't my uncle. He probably isn't anybody's uncle. He's just a guy who once discovered by accident that I like to get an early start in the morning. So he calls to tell me about his drinking bouts, his love life and other flights of debauchery, real and imagined.

Or it might be Jane. "Your daughter wants to say hello to you," she says. Then there's a lot of fumbling around. Finally, coached heavily from the background, Emily's nearly year-old voice asks:

"Da-Da?"

It's a killer, every time.

But lately, a fourth voice has been added to my morning menagerie. It belongs to the Persistent Paper Peeper.

This fellow has told me nothing about himself, other than the fact that he walks past an office building on Pennsylvania Avenue not far from the White House every weekday morning at about 7:04 a.m. On many of those mornings, he watches a thief.

The thief walks up to the three newspaper vending racks that stand on a corner of Pennsylvania Avenue. He deposits a quarter in The Washington Post box--and takes three copies. He deposits a quarter in The New York Times box--and takes three copies. Ditto The Wall Street Journal.

Then, as if he has never done anything wrong in all his born days, the guy tucks the mound of papers under his arm and walks nonchalantly into the office building.

The first time he called at 7:15, the Paper Peeper was bemused by the newspaper thief he had just seen, and so was I.

The second time he called at 7:15, he was getting angry. I was still bemused.

The last time, he wanted to enlist my help in doing something about the thief. So I got out a notebook and turned reportorial.

"What's he look like, sir?"

"He wears a plaid coat, a hat, a jacket and tie. He's about 55. Wears glasses. Carries a briefcase."

"So he's not some bum looking for a stack of papers to sleep on."

"Oh, no. I'd guess he takes the extra papers for some of the people he works with in the building. Maybe trying to impress the boss by giving him a free paper or something."

"You told the cops about this?"

"No. I'm not sure they'd believe me if I did."

"Ever follow him into the building?"

"For six stolen newspapers? I don't feel like risking my life, or a lawsuit, for six stolen newspapers."

It's 7:15 a.m. as I write this. The Paper Peeper hasn't called in a few days. Maybe the thief has wised up. Maybe he spends the winter in Florida. Maybe he went drinking with Uncle Joe one night and is still recovering. As the TV says, stay tuned.

Interesting legal sidelight to the question of newspaper racks on D.C. street corners:

A law that has been on the books since July 1, 1932, says that no more than three vending racks can stand on any one corner. Which three? The three that were there first.

Of course, this law is mocked every day of the week. I'm only guessing, but I'll bet there are 500 corners around town where four, five, even six racks sit.

Even so, the D.C. Corporation Counsel hasn't brought a case under this law since 1976, because attorneys in that office say they're worried that the law infringes on the constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press.

So why not repeal the law? That step has been under consideration since 1979. But Henry McCoy, a legislative assistant in the office of the city administrator for intergovernmental affairs, says no action is imminent.

Clearly, it's time for this situation to be straightened out. As it stands, a prosecutor can decide tomorrow to enforce the three-racks-to-a-corner rule, and the newer papers in town would be harmed severely.

CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL

More group donations have rolled in. The latest:

*$30 from the Family Veterinary Clinic in Gambrills, Md.

*$3 from Brookland Servistar Hardware in Northeast.

*And $27.50 from J. Belford Construction in Rockville--with a clever twist to it. "I was going to send you $25," writes president Jake B. Jones, "but you said there was a ten-cent increase on the dollar over last year. So here is $27.50."

That's the kind of inflation I can learn to love, Jake. Thank you.

The boy's name is Justin. On Dec. 23, he will celebrate his first anniversary as a patient at Children's. He has had two operations on his heart, and he isn't out of the woods yet. But he is alive, and Justin's father, S. Gene Taylor of Woodbridge, thinks that wouldn't be true if his son had spent the last year anywhere else.

"Unfortunately," Gene writes, "most of us don't recognize a valuable resource until it affects us in some way. The people of this area are most fortunate in having such a resource so close at hand.

" . . . With medical costs as they are, Justin's year at Children's has been a costly one--over half a million dollars at this point. But not once has anyone mentioned payment, or questioned my ability to pay, or even asked if I have health insurance. The welfare of the children come ahead of everything.

"And although we are fortunate enough to have health coverage that will cover most of the cost, I will never be able to repay the kindness, the support, the unselfishness shown to my wife and myself and especially to our son, Justin. For he is what Children's Hospital is all about."

Eloquent, Gene. Let me add just one point:

At Children's, such excellent treatment of patients and parents is routine. The hospital does the job, day in and day out, regardless of race, creed, religion, the part of town where a child lives or his family's ability to pay.

Isn't that the sort of Children's Hospital you want in your community? Isn't that the sort of Children's Hospital you'll help support?

To contribute to the campaign:

Make a check or money order payable to Children's Hospital and mail it to Bob Levey, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C., 20071.