The photograph, dated 1926, has an eerie quality that puts in focus the life and times of Virginia's Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr.

The scene is a crowded banquet room; at the head table is his father, then Gov. Harry Flood Byrd, a man who was to be lord over Virginia politics for almost half a century.

In the middle of the picture sits a solemn little boy, a tiny figure in a sea of stuffed shirts and black ties. At age 11, "Little Harry" even then displayed a transparent eagerness to follow in his hero's footsteps.

"My father and I were very close. He took me everywhere," said Byrd, who retires from the Senate next month at 68. "I'd go and I'd listen -- hell, I didn't know what they were talking about, but I listened."

For most of his 35 years in public life he remained Little Harry, a follower and a listener, a courtly, soft-spoken Virginia gentleman who has been content to take a back seat on most of the major issues of his day.

As a Virginia state senator, he toed the line on his father's policy of all-out resistance to school desegregation, although he never played a leading role. In the U.S. Senate, where he took his ailing father's place in 1965, his most notable accomplishments were a bill restoring citizenship to Robert E. Lee and an amendment lifting the ban on chrome imports from the white-supremacist government in Rhodesia.

The Byrd Amendment, focus of a heated foreign policy debate in the early 1970s, stayed on the books only a few years. In that sense, it had only slightly more impact than another Byrd amendment -- amendments were his forte -- attached to a 1978 International Monetary Fund act requiring the federal government to balance its budget by 1981.

Except for his endless lectures on the evils of deficit spending that are only now winning points with his colleagues, Byrd's presence was easily overlooked on Capitol Hill.

He left the Democratic Party in 1970 and, while he continued to vote to organize the Senate with the Democrats, he remained that body's only independent, a man without a party.

"He was a very retiring, almost withdrawn senator," said former Northern Virginia representative Herbert E. Harris, one of the senator's Democratic critics, earlier this year. "He rarely expressed himself. He rarely got involved in legislation. He rarely introduced a bill."

Yet this quiet, diminutive figure, who by his own admission never wanted real power or influence, was for much of his life the single most magnetic force in Virginia politics. During his 1976 election, which he won by 58 percent of the vote, a Democrat working for his defeat ruefully acknowledged that "running against Harry Byrd in Virginia was like going to heaven and running against someone up there."

Every year, politicians would look to Byrd for a sign -- a break in the family's patented "golden silence" that could help presidents or governors carry Virginia. This spring, after a group of his friends sought to get him back into the 1982 Senate race, the mere prospect of a Byrd resurrection sent shudders through both parties.

The paradox is explained by his inheritance: the name and the conservative philosophy he shared with his father, for years the head of the state's statehouse-to-courthouse organization. The mix worked magic in Virginia, in spite of all the changes the state had gone through. It was a shield opponents penetrated at their own risk.

"His name, his father were certainly two of his tremendous strengths," said former state senator Armistead Boothe of Alexandria, who in the 1966 primary gave Byrd the closest race he ever had. "With his name and his father, he was like Sampson with his hair and, perhaps if he hadn't had Sampson's hair he might have had a harder time in politics."

Like the father, the son had a knack for timing. His decision to become an independent in 1970 was one masterstroke. So too, some say, was his decision to retire before the Byrd myth caught up with the man.

"I don't consider myself a legend," the senator said in an interview last week in his office here on the second floor of the family-owned Winchester Star newspaper. But he always understood his special responsibilities.

"I always had to be careful what I would say because the press or the public would tend to see that as the position of my father, and I didn't want to compromise his position," he said.

"Yes, I would have preferred to be in a position where I could have been more outspoken," Byrd said. "There were times when I wished I could speak without running the danger of it being attributed to somebody else."

But even as he deferred to his father, Byrd never sought to replace him, not in the Senate, where Byrd Sr. had chaired the Finance Committee, nor in Virginia. "Certainly not," he said when asked if he would compare his accomplishments with his father's.

Interestingly, his only major effort at leadership was in blocking a 1960 sales tax proposal in the Virginia legislature -- a tax that his old friend, fellow Byrdman and former seatmate Mills E. Godwin, enacted as governor six years later in a break with the organization's traditions on fiscal policy.

Displaying a style that was dramatically different from his father's, Byrd stood back from Godwin's decision. "I didn't take any part in it. I didn't oppose it. I didn't advocate it," he said.

"We were two different individuals," Byrd said about his father. "I had no interest in running the organization. It was the last thing I wanted to do. Why? Well, first you get blamed for everything that comes up, regardless of whether you had anything to do with it or not.

"The second thing, I thought it was my full-time job to represent Virginia in the U.S. Senate without any responsibility beyond that. Another reason I didn't want to do it was that he [his father] had actually tried to get out from under the responsibility, not in the beginning, but in later years, but he could never do it.

"I could see what a burden it was for him; how anxious he was to get out from under it so I thought the best thing for me was not to get there in the first place." And Byrd laughed without any trace of regret.

There were times, said Byrd, when he disagreed with his father but respect held his tongue. "There was a difference in generation," he said, "a difference of 28 years. Naturally he would see things differently than I did. But I tried to keep our disagreements to myself."

On Virginia's "massive resistance" to integration -- a policy some say set the tone for intransigence across the South--he said he "personally hated" to see the state close schools rather than allow integration.

But he did vote to do just that, following the lead of both his father and Godwin, floor manager for the anti-integation forces in the state Senate. Was it avoidable? "I don't know," he said.

"It is one thing to sit here in 1982 and say what was done in 1954 was a mistake," he said. "It may or may not have been, because you have to look at it in the context of the times. When you have to make a very dramatic change, sometimes, most times, that needs to be done maybe over a period of time and not abruptly."

In fact, Virginia's response to the 1954 Supreme Court decision, as dictated by its senior senator, was not gradual compliance with the law but outright defiance -- until at last in 1959 Gov. J. Lindsay Almond broke ranks with the Byrds and changed the state's course.

But like other apologists for massive resistance, Byrd argues that it was perhaps justified because, in the end, Virgina avoided the racial violence that racked much of the South. As for the 14,000 schoolchildren who were locked out of their classrooms by massive resistance, he said simply: "That happened for a short period of time in a few areas."

Mostly, Byrd says now what he said in 1966 when Boothe hit him hard on his segregationist record. "I think all of that is passe now, ancient history," he said. "Virginia has developed well under the new policies and as I say, without violence."

That dismissal of the most important social issue to face Virginia in recent times has never won him friends among the state's black voters.

"He had a very negative impact in the area of bettering race relations," said state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder of Richmond, after Byrd announced his retirement last year. Twenty-seven years ago, harsher words were spoken. In 1955, Clarence Mitchell of the NAACP charged that Byrd Sr. had "led Virginia to a place beside Mississippi in the halls of ignorance and infamy."

Since then, Byrd, unlike other leading Southerners, never went out of his way to make amends with his black constituents. To many, his fight on the trade embargo against Rhodesia in 1971 was yet another red flag, as was his resistance to President Carter's wishes for the appointment of a black federal judge in Virginia.

Finally, as one of his last acts, Byrd this year was one of a handful of Southern conservatives -- old allies like Sens. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and John Stennis (D-Miss.) were conspiciously on the other side -- who fought extension of the Voting Rights Act.

Byrd stiffened visibly at the litany. On Rhodesian chrome: "Why blacks would take an issue with that, I can't see it. It had nothing to do with the situation over here. My proposal lifted the ban on the importation of a critical material at a time when we were at war . . . . I didn't agree with the government of Rhodesia now Zimbabwe . I don't agree with the government in South Africa . . . . Matter of fact, I don't agree with most governments, but that doesn't mean we can't trade with them."

Likewise, on the controversy over the judges, he noted simply: "I did what President Carter asked me to do establish judicial nominating committees and I did it the way he asked me to and then, because it didn't come out the way some people wanted it to, I got condemned for it."

But Byrd bridled most on the Voting Rights Act, bringing him back to one of his most cherished themes: devotion to principles.

"I am the one singled out," he said, "even though nine members of the House from Virginia voted exactly the same way. Apparently certain elements are not willing to concede that a guy has some principles of government. I happen to believe that it is unwise for the federal government to dominate a state's electoral process."

But Byrd is also candid in assessing the distance he has put between himself and the black leadership in Virginia. On massive resistance, he said, "I think that maybe they see it in a different way from what was really intended . . . . I don't blame them, but another aspect of it is that black leaders generally favor a much more liberal position on economic issues than I have ."

For Byrd, recent political trends have proved a vindication of sorts. President Reagan, a man for whom Byrd broke his golden silence in 1980, wins high marks from the senator for cutting government spending, although he chastises the president for "giving the Pentagon the impression it has a blank check" and for going too far with his tax cuts.

On those two points, Byrd finds himself in agreement with the Democratic Party, an irony he accepts quite happily. "I've been saying this long before the Democrats got into the act," he said.

But Byrd finds greater comfort in the growing acceptance of his once-unfashionable view that huge federal deficits are bad for the economy. He tells the story of having lunch recently with former California senator John V. Tunney -- "John was about as liberal as anybody has been" -- and finding himself in the company of a convert.

"He said, 'You know, Harry, when I was in the Senate you were always speaking on the need to control spending and I would walk into the Senate chamber and I would say, "Oh, hell, there's Harry talking about balanced budgets and controlling spending" and I would walk out,' " Byrd recounted. " 'Now, I've been in private sector for six years, I've totally changed my views . . . . If I were in the Senate today, I would be talking exactly as you've been talking and I'd be voting exactly as you've been voting.' "

"That," said Byrd, "encouraged me a great deal."

In Virginia, Byrd's unswerving dedication to limited government helped him build a loyal political base. To Byrd, the 1970 election -- his first as an independent -- was a testament to his ability to win votes on his own, without any help from the Democratic Party and its then-faltering state organization.

"It was a tough way to run," said Byrd, warming to war stories about his race against both a Democrat and a Republican, which Byrd called "the finest campaign I've ever seen in Virginia."

"I had the Republican governor against me, I had every statewide elected official against me," he said. "In every speech I made, I said the only way I can get elected is for you the public, you the citizen to elect me . . . . The way I looked at it, insofar as the politicians were concerned, they were going to follow for the most part the sentiments of the people in their locality. So I had to appeal to the public, over the heads of the politicians."

Last month in Richmond, at a lavish dinner in his honor, 800 members of Virginia's political elite came to pay homage to Little Harry. Amid blaring trumpets and a military color guard, Gov. Charles S. Robb, three former governors, a Supreme Court justice, Vice President George Bush and a roster of Richmond's "Main Street" establishment came to praise the man many view as the embodiment of the twin virtues of Virginia conservatism: fiscal integrity and, above all, predictability.

"True greatness," said former governor Albertis Harrison in a toast, "is often found in doing what is expected."