While recent federal furloughs and a ban on honoraria have riled many federal employees who have long complained of being underappreciated by the public, 66 federal executives honored yesterday by President Bush found out how sweet gratitude can be.

Yesterday, Bush bestowed the federal government's highest and most monetarily charitable civil service award -- the Distinguished Presidential Rank Awards -- on the nation's best top managers.

Each recipient of the award, which has been given to executive-level career employees every year since 1980, also receives a $20,000 check.

"I really have enjoyed every bit of it," Robert E. Whittington, executive director for administration and resource management at the Federal Aviation Administration, said of his civil service career. "I don't know if I could have asked for anything better." Leaving government service "is something I thought about all the time, but the challenges of the job itself were enough to keep me there."

The 66 recipients yesterday represented every executive department except the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and 11 other agencies. Three other honorees, one from the Drug Enforcement Administration and two from the FBI, received the Distinguished Presidential Awards, a technically different award that also carries with it a $20,000 check.

Another 316 federal executives were recipients of the Meritorious Presidential Rank Awards, which carry a $10,000 prize.

While the Persian Gulf crisis took up most of Bush's day yesterday, he appeared jovial at the 10 a.m. award ceremony, preaching the civil service's merits before what could be considered the choir of top federal managers.

"You've enhanced the dignity and the stature of public life, of public service, and that is an achievement for which you have every reason to be proud," Bush told the group meeting in the Old Executive Office Building.

"It's often thought that a career in public service is a thankless one, and it's true that the people who put in the long hours and keep the government moving rarely make the front page or the Sunday talk shows," he said. "That last point, that may be a blessing for all of

you . . . . "

Bush was criticized during the recent prolonged budget negotiations for not publicly sympathizing with the federal employees who were subject to furloughs during the political impasse. Yesterday, his words were more than soothing.

"Your integrity and professionalism have helped make our federal government a model for the rest of the world . . . ," Bush said. "I really congratulate you all from the bottom of a very, very grateful heart. Thank you so much."

Award winners interviewed yesterday said the much-maligned federal salary level was only a minor consideration in their years of public service. The trade-off was the scope of responsibilities and challenges they have encountered during their careers.

"I think salaries are important, but only to a certain level," said Milton H. Hamilton, administrative assistant to the secretary of the Army. "There are other things . . . . I'm a West Point graduate and 'duty, honor, commitment' is a motto I live by."

Richard H. Kohrs, director of Space Station Freedom, said his most challenging task has been to help NASA recover from the Challenger disaster. The tough part, he said yesterday after the award ceremony, was "getting over the initial shock, identifying the mistakes we made and then learning to live with them."

The check that goes with the Distinguished Presidential Rank Awards is the largest monetary award given annually by the federal government and goes exclusively to its highest-paid career employees, members of the Senior Executive Service. With the pay raise for senior-level executive that went into effect Jan. 1, SES-level employees earn $87,000 to $108,300 annually.

Other employees, those who make up the bulk of the civil service, qualify for annual achievement awards that typically include medals, lapel pins, certificates signed by the president or department heads and other non-monetary mementoes, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

About 25 monetary awards a year whose value is between $10,000 and $20,000 are given to low and mid-level employees, which includes everyone from entry-level secretaries to many managers. This group earns from $11,015 to $97,317 a year.

Constance B. Newman, director of the Office of Personnel Management, yesterday said the nation's top public service jobs are filled with people "faced with unmatched challenges and responsibilities. Their payoff is a professional and personal satisfaction that has no equal."