He lived in a 20-room Georgian mansion so cluttered with objets d'art that his friends called it "Smithsonian South." He summered at exotic ports of call with his vivacious redheaded wife, Nancy, who joined him in forays through the Australian outback and across the Soviet Union. He had carved out the Charles County (Md.) Community College with his bare hands and served as its civic-minded president for 17 years. "He was the golden boy for everyone." says Nancy. "He was the person they came to with their problems. Uncle Jay took care of everybody's everything."

Everybody's, it seems, except possibly his own. On the morning of May 19, just five days before he was scheduled to preside over his college's commencement exercises, Dr. Julian "Jay" Carsey, 47, simply vanished. Four months later the genteel folks of southern Maryland's Charles County are still reeling from his mysterious disappearing act. Police have ruled out foul play. Indeed, the evidence shows that the educator's defection was carefully plotted.

Sometime before driving 40 miles to Washington's National Airport, Carsey gathered up his private papers, emptied his savings account, liquidated his insurance policy and cashed in all his stocks. He also sat down to write a handful of farewell notes. To Louis Jenkins, the chairman of the board of trustees, he left a two-sentence letter of resignation. To good friend John Sine, dean of the college, who once directed Carsey in an amateur production of N. Richard Nash's The Rainmaker, he sent a postcard of Ronald and Nancy Reagan and the message: "Exit the Rainmaker. Good luck, J." (The allusion was also to Carsey's troubled efforts to inspire a shower of gold for the financially strapped school.) A third message was to Nancy. "He said he felt he was a physical and emotional disaster," she says. "He said he didn't have the will to improve and he didn't want to drive me down."

Nancy was as bewildered as everyone else by her husband's confession of anguish. "He always appeared so casual," she says. "There must have been a box inside that he never opened to anybody. I considered myself his best friend, and he never revealed anything to me." Adds John Thomas Parran, vice-chairman of the board of trustees: "If you told me that Jay had been kidnapped and forced to write those notes, it would have made as much sense to me as anything else. There were no good reasons for him to leave."

Indeed, it is precisely the absence of a clear-cut motive that continues to unsettle his neighbors and friends. Some of his female colleagues worry aloud that his sudden desertion will give their husbands "ideas." Apparently it has. Over at the Hawthorne Country Club, where he played tennis and golf, his old cronies have elevated him to a sort of folk hero: He is seen as the man, caught in the trappings of success, who made the Great Escape, a kind of D.B. Cooper of suburbia. They like to say at the club bar, "If he'd chartered a plane, we all could have gone."

Intimates such as John Sine suggest that Carsey was experiencing a midlife crisis. A graduate of George Washington University with a doctorate in public administration, he had been holding for 17 years a tension-packed job in which the average tenure is 10. Recalls Sine: "We used to say that when it wasn't fun any more, we would leave." Nancy notes that recent budget difficulties, which required him to lay off 27 staffers, caused her husband many sleepless nights.

Others point out that Carsey was a "laid-back kind of guy" who was never much interested in the exotic treasures that Nancy had been carting back from Europe since their marriage in 1968. But Nancy denies any problem in their relationship. "I honestly think Jay figured he was sparing me pain by going off on his own," she says.

In any case, everyone feels sorry for Nancy Carsey. Jay's abrupt departure has left her with a mortgage and a financial mess. She has filed for a "limited divorce" to gain ownership of the mansion and the estate, but everything is still entangled because of uncertainty as to whether Jay is alive or dead. If he were to contact her tomorrow, Nancy says, she would drop everything and rush to join him. Yet for the time being, she observes wistfully, "It would be nice if he could give me power of attorney."