After a 31-year career with the FBI that began as a rookie agent in Seattle and ended at the number two spot at headquarters, Robert M. "Bear" Bryant reluctantly bid the bureau farewell yesterday for a new job fighting fraud as head of an insurance industry trade group.

The 56-year-old Bryant, widely respected in the law enforcement community, fulfilled a boyhood dream by joining the FBI, and he successfully oversaw major cases, including the Aldrich Ames spy case, and the peaceful resolution of the Montana Freemen standoff several years ago. While he also presided over the development of the FBI's new strategic plan and a reorganization that puts more emphasis on national security and counterintelligence, Bryant is admired most for his commitment to the bureau's law enforcement mission and its people.

"My heart and soul is in this outfit," Bryant said in a recent interview.

On Monday night, Bryant was feted at the Willard Hotel at a farewell dinner replete with honors and accolades. Those gathered to pay homage--and poke a bit of fun--included Attorney General Janet Reno, CIA Director George J. Tenet, Deputy Defense Secretary John J. Hamre and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh. One by one, they heralded "the Bear's" strength of character, devotion and integrity.

"He always asked, 'What's the right thing to do for the country?' Not, 'What was the right thing to do for the FBI?' " Tenet said. "I really love this guy."

Freeh said he was privileged to have Bryant serve as his deputy and will miss the blue note cards filled with ideas that Bryant sent his way daily.

"No one could have a better friend or a better partner," Freeh said.

Freeh said Bryant's dedication to the bureau, and his family's sacrifices as well, were reflected in the Bryants' nine moves in 20 years, so he could take new posts. While the FBI director said Bryant had confided in him recently that he had let go of the bureau emotionally, Freeh said he would not return the favor.

"You let the FBI go last week. The FBI will not let you go," Freeh said.

Reno said she learned most about Bryant when she went to his home for Christmas a few years ago and discovered that he had managed to be an excellent husband and father while logging long and unpredictable hours in law enforcement. While acknowledging that they often disagreed on issues, Reno said that she and Bryant nevertheless always debated matters with a sense of mutual respect.

"I think he is one of the great people in law enforcement," Reno said in an interview. He tells it like it is. He is smart, he is fair, he is determined and he just doesn't give up. The greatness of this bureau is that it attracts people like Bob Bryant who stay with it."

Yesterday, sitting with a throng of reporters in the deputy's conference room, Bryant said his proudest achievements were the successful investigation and prosecution of the Ames spy case, and the creation of the "Safe Streets Program," a partnership with local authorities that began in the District and has led to 172 anti-crime task forces across the country.

Bryant, who sleeps only three to four hours a night, recalled the hectic summer of 1996, when, as head of the national security division, he found himself simultaneously dealing with the Khobar Towers bombing, the crash of TWA Flight 800, the Olympics and the Centennial Park bombing case. On one summer day alone, he said he received 46 phone calls at home just on terrorism.

"That was the summer from hell for me," he said.

Asked what problems he was leaving behind, Bryant said the FBI has a long way to go to catch up on technology and said the bureau remains an institution that sometimes makes mistakes in its handling of investigations and must do better to correct them.

"We are not expected to make mistakes. We do, though," he said.

Finally, as he prepared to leave the FBI yesterday, Bryant described how hard it was for him to leave friends behind and how he felt about his work over more than three decades.

"You work for the FBI, it's not for the money," Bryant said. "It's a calling. You do this because it's a passion. I'm afraid they'll have a war and not invite me."

CAPTION: FBI Deputy Director Robert M. "Bear" Bryant closed a 31-year career with the bureau to head an insurance industry trade group.