ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Ben Holden thought he had it made when he retired last year. He would finally get to relax in the serene, mountain community where he had served as president of Warren Wilson College for 15 years.

There was one problem.

"I love retirement, but I miss the vacations," he joked. "I didn't know it was going to be like this."

Holden, 69, is one of more than 600,000 people over the age of 65 in North Carolina. He also is one of a handful of people on the steering committee of a leadership council for retirees sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

The university, prompted by a booming population of senior citizens in North Carolina, is organizing a series of programs for the elderly that school officials say will be the most comprehensive of its kind in the country.

"We're looking at people in their third quarter," says Alf Canon, acting director of the Center For Creative Retirement. "We hear from people who are 65, or maybe as young as 50, who have decided to move into a secondary career or have decided they want to volunteer. They're shifting gears, but they often have 20 or 30 years of activity in front of them."

When it all comes together in 1988, the center will have eight components, including a council that provides consulting for small businesses, a health promotion center, a service league, a "college" run by and for retirees and an institute that holds workshops on issues such as housing options and finances.

"Each of these things is being done somewhere," Canon said. "But I don't know of any place in the world where all of these things are done under one umbrella."

Retirement is a critical issue in the United States, where people are living longer than ever before, and especially so in North Carolina, which moved from 27th to seventh among the 50 states in retirement-age populations from 1970 to 1980. Although more recent figures are not available from the U.S. Census Bureau, state officials say North Carolina probably has an even greater proportion of retirees now.

Thousands of retirees have settled in the North Carolina mountains. In Henderson County, for example, the number of residents who were 75 years old or more increased by 80 percent from 1970 to 1980. Almost 2,200 people 65 or older moved into the county between 1975 and 1980.

"They've all got different attitudes toward retirement, but for the most part, I think they're pretty positive," Canon said. "They're mostly in good health, and they're still interested and excited."

But the retirees face a change in life style for which few are mentally prepared, Canon said.

"There are a lot of people who have never thought through the process before," he said. "If your whole life has been wrapped up in your work, you think you're important because of your title or your expense account.

"All of a sudden, you walk out the door at work, and you're just Joe Blow. You've got to suddenly decide who you are as a human being, and how you're going to relate to others," Canon said.

Jack Nichols, 75, knows that feeling. After working 54 years in textiles, chemicals and investments in Philadelphia, he retired to the Asheville area a year ago. He is on the steering committee of the leadership council for retirees.

"In the past, my community contributions were pretty much through my church," he said. "You might say that my attitude now is somewhat a matter of catchup."

Nichols works with prison inmates in a pre-release program, and is wants to organize a network of volunteers to identify and help the 20,000 people in Buncombe County who cannot read.

"I feel that spending a day or two a week working for others is little enough to pay for the life I've had," he said.

Abe Freedman, another leadership council member, is focusing on the center's enterprise council, which will help people who want to start their own businesses get loans and advice.

"We'd like to put them through a five-day course," he said. "Once they're through with that, we'd lend them $5,000 to $20,000 to help them get started. We feel we could probably handle eight small businesses. And as they paid back the money, the program would be self-perpetuating, ideally."