THE NATIONAL Endowment for the Arts was created in 1965, and in 1969 Nancy Hanks became its second chairman. For most of the next decade, the time of the Endowment's phenomenal growth and its establishment as a consequential force in the country's artistic life, Miss Hanks was in charge. A Nelson Rockefeller prot,eg,e, a Richard Nixon appointee (who worked on through the Ford administration and into the Carter years), Miss Hanks was that most unusual of public figures: a woman who could sustain her position through several changes of administration, even though she was working in a field that was by nature suspect in Washington. Miss Hanks died on Friday, and the outpouring of tributes to her from all over the political and cultural worlds says much about the kind of person she was and the kind of job she did.

Hers was a class act--an act of astonishing skill. For Miss Hanks did not manage to acquire all those admirers by being politic or submissive or sycophantic. She was energetic, outspoken, fervid in her commitment to the arts and relentless in her pursuit of a better break for the arts in American society--which generally meant in her pursuit of money. To this end she was especially relentless, chivvying corporations, hounding congressmen and importuning skinflint budget directors, who tended eventually to give in or at least to make a deal. In this day of administration appointees who come to town with a passion only for phasing out the agency they have been named to lead, Miss Hanks' accomplishment seems all the more impressive, not to say startling.

Nancy Hanks was a champion of the arts. She was also a woman who understood how politics and government work and one who knew when she had the best deal she was going to get and, so, one who knew when to settle. In an environment full of artists and performers and intellectuals who do not always want for pride or self-confidence or, in certain cases, even monumental vanity and who can be truly murderous in their competitiveness with one another, she nonetheless flourished and was widely respected. It couldn't have been strictly for the money she supplied. It was preeminently for the sincerity and strength of her commitment. Nancy Hanks made an almost impossible job seem possible; she did it well and she earned much affection in the process.