He began as a $2,208-a-year assistant draftsman in the Fairfax County mapping office, an 18-year-old Loudoun County High School graduate who needed a job because his hopes for a college football scholarship had collapsed.

Today, 24 years and 22 county jobs later, he is Fairfax's $74,500-a-year appointed county executive, one of the most influential and least-known leaders of local government in the Washington area, a suburbanite with a country-boy air managing one of the nation's weathiest counties with a budget bigger than some governors control.

J. Hamilton Lambert, 42, is an improbable character for his role, a 240-pound short man with a moon face, a dimpled grin and an unending supply of often-corny wisecracks, often aimed at himself. He is a complicated man who often tries to appear simple; a cocky man who nonetheless avoids the limelight; a man for whom political philosophy matters less than the pragmatism of stormwater drains, snow removal and property tax assessments.

Since assuming the top job in Fairfax in 1980, Lambert has earned a reputation as a wily man who makes things work. Now, with his experienced counterparts in the District and in Prince George's and Montgomery counties about to resign, Lambert is the acknowledged dean of the Beltway bureaucrats.

"I am 61 years old and I've seen a lot of city managers and county managers come and go," says Walter Scheiber, executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "I've never seen a better one than Jay."

"You tell me what color you want the wall, and I'll paint it," Lambert is said to have told his board once. "Don't tell me how high a ladder I need, and don't tell me where to buy the paint."

Lambert rose through the ranks, colleagues say, on a quick mind, an uncanny political sense and the ability to be in the right place and please the right people. Today he relies on those same skills to manage a $1 billion budget and 6,000-worker bureaucracy while satisfying the nine elected supervisors who hired and could fire him, part-time politicians with full-time egos.

"If I need him for any reason, Jay's available," says Mount Vernon Supervisor Sandra L. Duckworth.

"He's very politically astute in dealing with nine prima donnas," says Mason District Supervisor Thomas M. Davis III.

"He tries to please," says Annandale Supervisor Audrey Moore.

Last Wednesday afternoon Lambert was discussing the agenda for next week's Board of Supervisors meeting with his top aides. One of his deputies told him that Supervisor Marie B. Travesky was upset because a proposed trail in her Springfield District would not be paved for at least three months.

Travesky was insisting the work be finished by June, the deputy said, which happened (he did not say it) to be the month she faces a tough Republican primary. Lambert puffed on one of his ever-present Vantage cigarettes and then ordered his deputy to have county workers spread gravel on the trail in the meantime. "She can say the preliminary work's done, and the rest is on the way," Lambert said.

In the District, retiring chief administrative officer Elijah B. Rogers answered to the mayor. In Prince George's and Montgomery, retiring managers Kenneth V. Duncan and Robert Wilson answered to their elected county executives.

In Fairfax, which has no elected executive, Lambert is the highest-ranking full-time official. According to supervisors, that makes his job more powerful and at the same time more precarious, since he must please nine masters with divergent goals, philosophies and personalities.

Board Chairman John F. Herrity, the county's titular leader, wanders into Lambert's office several times a day, bumming cigarettes and informally talking over county business. He says Lambert is skilled at maintaining his nonpartisan role while helping boost each supervisor in his or her home district.

"You can't play board members off against each other," says Herrity, one of four Republicans on the board. "To want to be in my job or to be in his job, you've got to have a big ego. The question is, can you control it? I don't think Jay's ego gets in his way."

"Any time Jay is perceived as running the county or wanting to run the county, he's out," said Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax), who used to watch board actions for the League of Women Voters.

When Lambert and his staff prepared the county's midyear budget, Supervisor Moore says, he made sure every supervisor's district got something. "I got a design for a road. There were bridges here, and sidewalks there, and drainage projects over there. That was the first time the midyear budget has been approved so early, and with almost no discussion."

Some aides, who see a less ingratiating side of Lambert than he shows supervisors or reporters, grumble that he goes too far to satisfy "the governing body," as he calls them with respect. "Everything is political," one complains. "If everything is what the supervisors want, what's the point of having a staff?"

Lambert can be strong-willed, however, and he sometimes tells supervisors they are asking too much. When Davis wanted no-parking signs on a street in his district last week, Lambert made sure the board knew the signs would violate county policy, and the board said no. When Moore cited a conversation with staff member Philip G. Yates to support a point she was making that Lambert disagreed with, he said icily: "I wasn't aware Mr. Yates was county executive."

Moore, the primary spokeswoman for slow-growth policies in fast-developing Fairfax County, has matched wits with Lambert for decades on water and sewer policies that can spur or direct suburban growth--and that frighten off many other officials with their arcane technicalities. Moore, a maverick on the board, says she often disagrees with Lambert as he carries out the policies of the board majority, but even so trusts him to know what he is talking about and never mislead her.

"I don't expect him to tell me the whole truth," Moore says. "I expect him to tell me the truth. Then I have to be smart enough to figure out what's going on, and sometimes I do and sometimes I don't."

Lambert's father trained horses and drove a taxi in Leesburg. His mother worked in a frozen-food factory. The family lived mostly in apartments, he says, on the "wrong side" of the Washington & Old Dominion railroad tracks that used to cut through town.

"I always said we had to move to the right side of the tracks, and when we did they picked up the tracks," Lambert says. "That's when I figured out you had to keep your goals moving."

He was an honor student and a football lineman in high school, until a senior-year back injury killed his chances of winning a sports scholarship to college. He met his wife at her father's liquor store in Maryland, and she worked for many years as a beautician in Leesburg.

Lambert moved from the mapping office to the planning office, where he was noticed by then county executive Carlton J. Massey. Massey and his successors moved him from project to project, grooming him for leadership, often throwing him into entrenched bureaucracies where Lambert remembers being less than welcome.

When he was assigned to an annexation dispute with Alexandria, Lambert read law books. When he was sent to public works for a three-week assignment that stretched into three years, Lambert read the sewer plant operator's manual. "Where else would you expect to find it all in such plain language?" he says.

He twice became acting county executive in the 1970s and twice resisted the supervisors' entreaties to accept the job permanently, for family reasons and because he was uncertain he was ready, he says. When he finally did say yes, it was over the initial objections of some supervisors who favored an outsider with better credentials who, as one says, would be "more likely than Jay to be innovative and look beyond the immediate context for solutions."

That supervisor now says he thinks he underestimated Lambert. Most of the suprervisors agree that Lambert controls the bureaucracy better than any outsider could because of his "hands-on" experience, his network of friends and sources in every agency and his historical recall of county affairs. (Lambert has a story for any discussion: Mention McLean Park, for instance, and he will launch into the tale of the county animal warden who accidentally put himself to sleep there by shooting a tranquilizer into his foot.)

"You can hire some hotshot from Seattle or Minneapolis, and they can have a Harvard PhD in public administration, but if they don't know the county and they don't know what makes the politicians tick, they're worthless," Davis says.

Lambert's know-how and studied self-effacement also has endeared him to officials from the District and other regions, who traditionally regard each other with well-founded mistrust. "Put it this way," Lambert recalls. "Everyone would sit with their back to the wall."

Lambert became a "calming influence," according to Prince George's Duncan, "the glue that has held the region together over the last four years." Duncan, Rogers and others agree that Lambert steered them toward agreements on sharing water and sewage treatment facilities, and more recently toward cutting Metro transit costs and pooling the governments' purchasing power for some bulk commodities such as petroleum.

Today Lambert looks at Fairfax and says he sees a world under control. Crime is going down, taxes are barely rising, federal cuts have been weathered with little pain, and the fire department, although under some criticism, "is still putting out all the fires," he says.

Those who know him say he harbors some insecurities about his lack of formal training. He often makes jokes such as, "I've been to college twice--once to pick up a girl and once to drop her off."

But his friends also say that Lambert has proved himself, and knows it. "Maybe in the quiet of the night, he still worries," one says. "But if you're asking is he humble, the answer is no . . . . He's got his county life right where he wants it."