The gathering was a friendly one, high school classmates getting together at a restaurant a few months after their graduation. But Clarence Thomas had something he wanted to get off his chest.

As his classmates listened uncomfortably, Thomas bitterly unburdened himself of the slights and humiliations he had suffered as the first black to graduate from their small Catholic boarding school near Savannah, Ga.

He reminded his dinner companions of the taunts and racial gibes and of the classmates who at mealtime acted as if he had a contagious disease, recalled Mark Everson, now a child psychologist in North Carolina. But perhaps Thomas's most poignant recollection was of a subtler shade of racism.

"He had a pair of shoes that were much more fashionable than we had, and we would tease him about those shoes, which were something more acceptable in a black school," Everson said. "And he commented . . . about how hard it was to try to fit in with his black friends one way and then at {school}, where we would tease him for the way he dressed."

Everson said Thomas's revelations left him deeply moved. "We were products of a certain time and generation in Georgia," he said. "I was saddened that we had been that way."

If there was one constant in the early life of Clarence Thomas, whose confirmation hearings for a seat on the Supreme Court begin Tuesday, it was his knowledge of how his skin color set him apart.

Racism affected Thomas in ways both large and small, dictating his choice of schools, barring him from the James Bond movies he yearned to see and even earning him taunts from fellow black children, who mocked his exceptionally dark complexion. Once it got him ejected from a Shakey's pizzeria. Ultimately it helped drive him off the path to the priesthood.

But if Thomas knew firsthand the pain of racial injustice, he also suffered from its remedy. First as a seminary student and then as a college student on the vanguard of integration, Thomas often expressed feelings of loneliness, self-doubt and isolation -- a black man in a white world with the wrong shoes.

The details of Thomas's past have assumed special importance since President Bush named the 43-year-old federal appeals court judge to succeed retiring Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. In an unusual twist, it is Thomas's life -- more than his work -- that supporters have emphasized as his primary qualification for the high court.

The legal experience of the former chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is limited, and his 18 months on the federal bench have yielded little in the way of a comprehensive judicial philosophy.

But Thomas's backers suggest that in his gutsy climb from the poverty and racism of the segregated South, Thomas acquired a perspective greater than legal scholarship. Bush touched on this theme when he announced Thomas's nomination in July, calling his life "a model for all Americans."

Thomas, who declined to comment for this article, has emphasized his up-from-the-bootstraps background to explain his opposition to racial quotas and other forms of preferential treatment for minorities, which he says create a false impression that blacks cannot make it on their own.

Thomas's conservative views have earned him scorn from civil rights leaders, who call them a betrayal by a man who in college and law school was himself a beneficiary of affirmative action. Abortion-rights activists fear that his expressed view that the Constitution should be interpreted in light of a "higher law" could signal his opposition to legalized abortion.

But few question the power of Thomas's life story, a modern-day morality play defined by grit, self-denial and competitiveness so intense that he once said he treated college vacations as an opportunity to stay on campus and "get ahead" of his mostly white classmates "while they played."

Yet for all Thomas's outspokenness on matters of race and civil rights, his portrait remains incomplete. As the Senate prepares to consider his nomination, many people are wondering what to expect of this tough, proud, warm, gregarious, complex and sometimes bitter man. The answers may lie in his past. 'Old Man Can't Is Dead'

In the more than two months since Thomas was nominated, his childhood in the rural neighborhood of Pin Point, Ga., outside Savannah, has taken on familiar and even mythic proportions: His birth to a teenage mother on June 23, 1948, his abandonment by his father while still a toddler, his early years in the simple wood-frame house at the edge of a tidal marsh.

But Thomas did not remain in Pin Point for long, and the events that followed the destruction by fire of the family home in 1955 ultimately played a far greater role in shaping his life. For it was the fire that brought him to Savannah and into the home of his grandparents, Myers and Christine Anderson.

The move was born of desperation. For some months after their arrival in Savannah, Thomas's mother, Leola Williams, had tried to keep the family together, living with 6-year-old Clarence and his younger brother in a squalid one-room tenement with an outdoor toilet.

But it was a precarious existence, sustained only by the $14 a week she earned as a maid, she recalled in an interview. So in the summer of 1955, deciding that "you needed a man over your boys," Williams sent her sons to live with her parents. (Their older sister had remained in Pin Point with relatives.)

Myers Anderson was a somber, thick-shouldered and deeply religious man who would emerge as the greatest single influence on Thomas's life. Born into poverty, raised by an uncle, Anderson had built a small but successful business delivering wood, coal, ice and heating oil. He owned several modest rental homes and a small farm in nearby Liberty County.

"Everyone is emphasizing that {Thomas} grew up in Pin Point in poverty, but when his grandfather took over, Clarence moved into what would be considered a fairly successful black middle-class family," said Floyd Adams, a childhood friend whose father bought heating oil from Anderson.

Though Anderson had only completed the third grade -- Thomas would later recall "his slow poring over the Bible so that he could pass the literacy test to vote" -- he placed great stock in education, promptly enrolling Clarence in the all-black Catholic school affiliated with his church, St. Benedict the Moor. Annual tuition was $20. Staffed by Franciscan nuns, many of them Irish, St. Benedict's was an oasis of stability where the students wore blue and white uniforms and stood in unison whenever an adult entered the classroom.

Sister Virgilius Reidy remembers Thomas as a bright, mischievous, ordinary youth, "not a genius," but hard-working and always polite to his elders. He was a patrol boy and won the altar-boy-of-the-year award in 1961, recalled Robert DeShay, a childhood friend.

Thomas's home life provided little respite from the demands of church and school. The muscular, forbidding figure whom the boys addressed as "daddy" was a stern taskmaster who Thomas would later claim had never slept past dawn. His attitude toward life was captured by his favorite homily: "Old Man Can't is dead -- I helped bury him."

Every afternoon after school, the boys helped out on the Anderson Fuel Co.'s tanker truck, pumping heating oil while their grandfather took care of the paperwork, Adams recalled. Summers were consumed by farm chores in Liberty County.

"Today, I understand what they were doing and why they were so hard on my brother and me," Thomas said in a 1986 speech. "They were preparing us for survival in a racist, hostile environment."

Reminders of that environment were everywhere, even at St. Benedict's, where Thomas suffered from a "caste system" in which dark-skinned blacks ranked at the very bottom, a childhood friend recalled. Thomas himself once told an interviewer that he was known as "ABC," for America's Blackest Child.

But the gravest insults emanated from the institutionalized racism of segregation. "I can still see myself sitting on the tractor, alone, back of the field, plowing in uninterrupted solitude," he recalled in a 1986 speech. "Usually, I would think about a world that was unlike the one we were supposed to live in. I would wonder about the tremendous contradictions and discrepancies between the way we live and the way our Constitution and Bill of Rights read. Since I was raised a devout Catholic, I wondered why the church and schools were segregated. Weren't we all equal in the eyes of God?"

With the dawn of the civil rights era, some of Thomas's daydreams were realized. But in many ways these new opportunities only intensified his sense of being an outsider. 'Black Spot on the White Horse'

As the rector of St. John Vianney Minor Seminary, a preparatory school for aspiring priests in a rural area near Savannah, Father William Coleman was well-known for his enlightened views on race relations. During communion, he used a gold chalice decorated with a black gem, a symbol of his dedication to "improving the lives of blacks," recalled Mark Everson, the child psychologist and Thomas's old friend.

In that spirit, St. John proudly enrolled its first two black students in the fall of 1964. Sixteen-year-old Clarence Thomas was one of them.

Thomas came to St. John from all-black St. Pius X High School, where he had spent the ninth and 10th grades. Preparing to fulfill a mission inspired by his grandfather, Thomas spent three years at St. John and another year at Conception Seminary College in Missouri, where he was supposed to complete his training.

But for all the good intentions of Coleman and others who took an interest in his success, Thomas's first experiences in the white world were not happy ones. Racism, it seemed, knew no boundaries.

Life at St. John was nothing if not isolated. Each grade slept in a single, barracks-like room; classes met six days a week; and before vacations Coleman would admonish the future priests to avoid the dangers of "mixed company," otherwise known as girls.

But Thomas, steeped in his grandfather's discipline, seemed to thrive on these monastic rigors. He repeated the 10th grade, catching up on his Latin, but he was an excellent student who also found time to write for the school paper and manage the student yearbook. A printed comment beneath his senior photo reflected his enduring obsession with grades: "Blew that test, only a 98."

A similar competitive zeal revealed itself on the playing field. "Clarence was the only guy who was a real athlete," said Steven Seyfried, who played on an intramural basketball team with him. "We would meet before the game and say, 'Today's game plan is to get the ball to Clarence.' "

Seyfried, a good friend at the time who remembers Thomas as "a very gentle, lovely guy," said Thomas fit in well at the school. "There was a great deal of closeness and camaraderie among the students," he said.

But Thomas would remember things differently, telling an audience in 1985, "Not a day passed that I was not pricked by prejudice." He once told an interviewer that when the lights were doused in his dorm room, one of his classmates would crack, "Smile, Clarence, so we can see you."

Things were little different at Conception Seminary College, a lonely outpost of redbrick buildings surrounded by cornfields where the 19-year-old Thomas enrolled in 1967. Many of his classmates were from neighborhoods that were "99.9 white," as one put it, and Thomas -- one of only three black students -- was something of a curiosity. His roommate, an irrepressible sort who later became a friend, whipped out a knife when he met Thomas in a joking play on racial fears. Tom O'Brien, who later became Thomas's closest friend there, remembers wincing at the welcome.

Thomas seemed shy to some classmates, but O'Brien and other friends remember a funny, more gregarious side to him. One of the other black students "made everyone feel kind of guilty, but Clarence never displayed that kind of baggage," said Father Benedict Neenan, a former classmate of Thomas's and now the seminary's prior. "He did everything we did, he seemed to us really just like the rest of us. He probably consciously worked at that."

But Thomas's hard work did little to assuage the racism of some white classmates. A month or two before the end of the term, he went to O'Brien's dorm room to inform him, teary-eyed, that he wouldn't be returning the next year. "I've run into too many rednecks," O'Brien recalled him saying.

In speeches and interviews, Thomas has recalled that the final straw came when he overheard a white seminarian's response to the news that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot: "Good -- I hope the SOB dies." Later, Thomas wrote to O'Brien that he had left Catholicism entirely -- a decision he changed several times -- partly because of O'Brien's pastor in Kansas City who "can call himself a Christian and a {George} Wallace supporter at the same time."

Thomas's bitterness over his treatment by white seminarians permeated a 1984 interview with the Holy Cross alumni paper, in which he described himself as "the black spot on the white horse" and recalled that "the students temporarily discontinued awards, like Athlete of the Year, that I was likely to win."

Thomas's unhappy memories do not always gibe with those of former teachers and classmates. In fact, Thomas was named "class superjock" by his classmates at Conception, according to the school newspaper. And in the case of St. John, where Thomas captained several intramural teams, none of the former students or teachers interviewed for this article could recall an episode similar to the one Thomas described.

But if Thomas erred on the details, Everson suggested that the bigotry he encountered was real. "Some of the students were openly racist," he said. "Most of us were just insensitive." 'Cousy' Was His Nickname

The King assassination in 1968 sent a tidal wave of guilt across the colleges and universities of white America, and Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., was no exception. Within days of the killing, administrators at the conservative, Jesuit-run school had set up a King scholarship fund and embarked on a crash recruiting drive at black Catholic high schools nationwide.

Their efforts would have a profound effect not just on Holy Cross, but also on Clarence Thomas.

Although Thomas was not directly recruited to Holy Cross -- he applied at the urging of one of the Savannah nuns, according to a longtime friend -- he did receive one of the first King scholarships and in that sense "certainly" benefited from a form of affirmative action, according to the Rev. John E. Brooks, now the president of Holy Cross.

Brooks said, however, that the school had no formal, preferential admissions policy for blacks beyond a general desire to attract more. In any event, the effort paid off: Nearly as many blacks entered Holy Cross in the fall of 1968 as had graduated from the school in its 125-year history.

Arriving at the staid, overwhelmingly white campus, with its handsome Georgian buildings perched on a hill overlooking the gritty New England factory town, Thomas felt more of an outsider than ever. He would later recall the blank look he got from a newspaper vendor when, after purchasing his first copy of the New York Times, he returned and asked for the comics.

Thomas also was impressed by his fellow students' high SAT scores, writing O'Brien not long after his arrival, "There are some souls with college board scores ranging from 650-750." Friends remember he had little confidence in his attractiveness to women and seemed anxious to get married.

Thomas's apprehensiveness about his reception at Holy Cross was not entirely misplaced. In a 1971 campus survey, three years after his arrival, 35.6 percent of the respondents attributed the presence of black students at Holy Cross to "tokenism" while nearly half agreed with the statement, "Negroes tend to have less ambition."

Thomas seemed determined to prove them wrong. By all accounts, he studied furiously, on one occasion petitioning campus administrators to reverse a planned cutback in the library's Saturday night hours. "He was always in the library, down in the basement carrels," said Jaffe Dickerson, a college friend.

Besides his academic duties, Thomas ran on the track team, held a job in the school cafeteria and one morning a week rose at dawn to serve breakfast to poor children in a church basement in Worcester. "He was always a little bit more mature than the rest of us," Dickerson said.

Thomas had a reputation as a grind, but classmates also recalled him as warm, straightforward, even jovial. A standout in touch football and pickup basketball games, he went by the nickname of "Cousy," after Bob Cousy, a famous Holy Cross basketball star of the 1950s. Several remembered him as a surrogate big brother to younger blacks who had followed him to Holy Cross from Savannah.

Thomas also seemed to share his black classmates' enthusiasm for the radical politics of the day. He wore a goatee, Army fatigues and combat boots, and a poster of Malcolm X adorned his dormitory room, according to a former roommate. In January 1969 he joined a number of other students in founding the Black Student Union, serving as its first treasurer and writing its constitution. Thomas later lost a close election for president of the union, recalled Leonard Cooper, a college friend and fellow activist.

Thomas participated in several civil rights protests in Worcester, including one outside a Thom McAn shoe store accused of denying jobs to blacks, Cooper said. His most celebrated act of defiance occurred during his junior year, following the suspension of four black students for their involvement in blocking access to the campus by corporate recruiters. Complaining that the four had been singled out because of their race, the black students staged a news conference in which they ceremoniously threw down their student ID cards, then left the campus in a caravan of cars.

But Thomas, who does not appear to have played anything other than a supporting role in the walkout, was hardly an extremist. Cooper noted that Malcolm X's autobiography was on the 1968 freshman reading list. And others dismissed the suggestion that Thomas's penchant for Army surplus clothing constituted a political statement.

"He wore combat boots because there was snow all over the place," said Dickerson, who like others recalled Thomas less as a firebrand than as an independent, frequently moderate voice who didn't hesitate to take a contrary view.

"Everybody respected 'Cousy' -- he always had his own mind," said Dickerson, now an attorney in Los Angeles. "You had a left view, a right view, a center view and then you had 'Cousy's' view."

In the spring of 1969, when the black students took up the question of whether to seek an all-black dorm corridor, Thomas cast the only no vote out of 25 because, he explained later, "If one was at Holy Cross, he should profit from the experience by learning to associate {with} and understand the white majority."

The next fall, when Thomas moved onto the black corridor -- which included several whites -- he surprised some black classmates by bringing with him his white roommate from the previous year.

The isolation and academic pressures took their toll. Thomas considered dropping out on several occasions. In the fall of 1969, he told the alumni paper, "I had my trunk all packed. I had decided that it was true, what the other blacks had been saying: that Holy Cross was a crusher, that it would break your spirit." Brooks, then the vice president, helped persuade him to stay. But by the spring of 1970, Thomas again told friends he was tired of school and would have left but for his fear of being drafted during the Vietnam War. He was later disqualified because of a back condition.

Still, ever conscious of his grades, he wrote O'Brien that he was keeping up a 3.7 grade point average.

A development in Thomas's personal life may ultimately have been responsible for keeping him in Worcester. Friends at Holy Cross had introduced him to Kathy Ambush, a demure, pretty student at a nearby college and the daughter of a Worcester dental technician. Within days of their meeting, said Eddie Jenkins, "I remember him telling me he was in love."

On June 5, 1971, the day after Thomas's graduation, the two were married at All Saints Episcopal Church in Worcester. Nelson Ambush, Kathy's father, loaned Thomas $15 to buy his senior yearbook.

Staff researcher Ralph Gaillard Jr. contributed to this report.