Bethany, Okla. — At Bethany Nazarene College they tell about a prank pulled off by Gary Warren Hartpence. On a dirt patch near the campus mall, Gary and some buddies implanted cardboard ''tombstones'' for faculty members and dubbed the area the ''Nazarene Theological Cemetery.'' Each ''tombstone'' carried a witty inscription and the ''cemetery'' delighted faculty and students for several days.
The story is told in response to repeated questions from reporters about whether Gary Hart had a sense of humor when he was a student at Bethany in 1954- 58.
''We had our laughs in the dorm,'' says Howard Oliver, chairman of the Music Department. ''Gary has a good sense of humor, but it's not a flippant humor. He was a serious student.''
For a time Gary Hart dropped the term ''Nazarene'' when referring to his alma mater in his official biographies. That rankles some students today. But there is nonetheless a quiet pride here that the school has an alumnus running to be president of the United States - and an alumna, Oletha (Lee) Ludwig, who could become the nation's first lady.
Bethany Nazarene College (BNC), a church-sponsored liberal-arts institution, has suddenly become the center of national media attention. And it is enthusiastically rising to the occasion. The alumni office has printed a two-page resume on Gary Hart's collegiate activities and the individuals who knew him.
A recent edition of The Perspective, the college alumni magazine, carries a speech given by Mr. Hart at the Yale Divinity School in 1982. And a visiting journalist is given a tour of the campus, a collection of modest red-brick buildings on 40 acres of land in the town of Bethany, an enclave of Oklahoma City.
Why did Hart attend BNC?
''His parents were members of the Church of the Nazarene,'' says Michael Crabtree, the school's soft-spoken alumni director. ''Our college serves Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Oklahoma, and a lot of people that attend church come here.''
''He's no longer a Nazarene, of course,'' adds Mr. Crabtree. ''He and his wife, Lee, who also graduated here, are Presbyterians now.''
The alumni resume shows Mr. Hartpence to have been an active and honored student. He was president of the Philosophy Club, head of the Student Council, a staff member of the college newspaper, and member of an honor society. He received an award as outstanding freshman and in his senior year was given the ''Good Citizen'' award by the faculty.
Those who knew him personally remember him as a serious, articulate student interested primarily in ideas.
''He did change in his theological thinking in the last year, and that's why he went to Yale rather than our seminary,'' says Professor Oliver, who knew Gary through intramural sports and student activities. ''We were pretty reserved and conservative as a college, and I assume Gary needed a greater concept of thought.''
While surprised by Hart's sudden success in the presidential race, and although himself a registered Republican, Oliver says he has no concern about Hart's becoming president.
''He has a good mind and could do the job. I'm not afraid for my country if he's elected. I'm closer to voting for him than I thought I would be.''
What impresses Oliver and others is that Gary and Lee keep up their old friendships. On a hasty visit here recently, the senator from Colorado recognized Oliver in the crowd and stopped to speak with him.
Lee, whose father was once president of the college, seems to be remembered with special fondness.
''It was fun having Oletha back on campus,'' remarks Dolores Wood, a professor of Spanish and French who was treasurer of the junior class at Bethany when Hart was president. ''She's kept her youth and looks the same - except her hair is longer. I think she'd be a gracious first lady.''
There clearly is no fawning on the Harts in this conservative community, however. In fact there are a lot of questions about Hart's candidacy among students and faculty alike.
''When people begin to pin him down, what will he say?'' asks Professor Wood, a Republican who says he will vote for Ronald Reagan again. ''Not everyone is jumping on his bandwagon because he went to college here.''
Fred Floyd, retired chairman of the History and Social Sciences Department, remembers Gary as someone who stood out.
''I was enthusiastic for him as a student and a gentleman,'' says Dr. Floyd.
''He was quite an activist, but that was clothed with a modesty that was nice. He wanted to see things done and was willing to help get them done. I'd vote for him.''
Among Bethany's more than 1,300 students, who come from 42 states and 26 countries and represent 35 denominations, one finds a variety of opinion. Sitting in the dining room after an evening meal, discussion is lively when a reporter happens in.
''I admire Hart because he's not strictly liberal,'' remarks David Mumme of Houston. ''He seems to know what to do in foreign policy and the nuclear arms race. Mondale seems like a politician, but Hart seems to be more his own man.''
''But I prefer Reagan,'' the tall student added. ''He's done an excellent job , especially in economic policy. He has a basic moral, ethical framework that is similar to mine.''
''But Reagan's not for women's issues,'' chimed in Camilla Carr of Norman, Okla.
''He's back in the '50s or '40s where women are concerned. But I was for Mondale. I don't know what Hart stands for.''
''It's good publicity for our school, but I'm for Reagan,'' said Susan Porter , another Oklahoman. ''He stands for Christianity. In the public eye you can't be afraid of what you believe in. Reagan is a president - he matches up.''
''Yes, it'd be good to leave Reagan in,'' agreed Phillipo Bridgewater of Dallas. ''For any president, four years is not enough. But I prefer Hart over Mondale for the Democrats.''
Brian Brown, a junior from Lawton, Okla., who is studying Christian education , is more partial to Hart.
''It's neat that someone from Bethany is running for president,'' he said.
''Hart looks like a good guy. I like his ideas about cutting down on defense - advancing our defense but not the gross numbers. But I'm vague about where he stands on education.''
''Personally I think he's too liberal,'' commented Danny Thomas, a religion major from Frankfort, Ky. ''Just because he's affiliated with the college doesn't give him pull.
''No one here thinks he'll make it to president. I'm registered as a Democrat , but I'll probably vote for Reagan. I think it's bad that Hart associates with the Nazarenes and doesn't practice (their religion).''
Bethany students and faculty have strong religious and moral convictions. Asked about Hart's past marital difficulties, they tend to support the effort to keep a marriage together.
''I believe in Christian principles, in marriage as a commitment,'' says Oliver. ''Even if the Harts got together just for political reasons that would be good enough reason, in my opinion. I'm glad when people stay together for whatever reason.''
Gary and Lee Hart may or may not become president and first lady. But they have stirred interest, questions - and not a little pride - at Bethany Nazarene College.